You might have heard that smartphones are about to get a whole lot faster, thanks to the new fifth-generation, or 5G, mobile network. It’s expected that most of the US will be covered by this new network by the end of next year. Major wireless carriers and a chorus of industry insiders are promoting the emerging technology as the dawn of a new era in mobile communication. That’s a big claim. What makes 5G such a big deal? Do you really need it? What can you expect when it finally arrives? Here’s what you need to know…

What is 5G? Each generation of wireless network technology represents an expansion from the previous generation. Each new generation gives the consumer faster transmission of data, which means snappier web browsing, quicker downloads…a decrease in response time (called latency)…and, of course, more stunning apps, games and video streaming. 

How fast will 5G be? The first true generation of digital cellular was 2G, which came on the scene after 1G, which was analog phone service. With 2G it took about three minutes to download a high-resolution image and about seven minutes to download a song. With 3G, the same photo could be downloaded in about four seconds…and the song, only 10 seconds. With the current generation’s network, 4G, it takes about half a second to download the same photo and just three seconds to download the song. 

The coming 5G network will produce an even more dramatic increase. For example, with 4G today, you can download the average movie in about seven minutes. With 5G, you may be able to download the same movie in about seven seconds

Is increased speed the only benefit? The truth is that current 4G speeds are sufficient for most users most of the time, but 5G also will bring a major decrease in response time. This means that you’ll spend less time staring at loading screens, in particular in applications that require real-time connectivity such as gaming, video calling and live-streaming videos.

Tech insiders already are expecting 5G to enable all kinds of sci-fi stuff—hologram calls…doctors performing surgery remotely…virtual reality that you can feel…fully self-driving cars…and plenty more. 

When will it be here? Both Verizon and AT&T launched 5G on a small scale at the end of 2018, but that was mostly just a race to say they got there first. 

As of June 2019, AT&T has brought 5G to parts of 19 cities including: ­Atlanta…Austin, Texas…Charlotte, North Carolina…Dallas…Houston…Indianapolis…Jacksonville, Florida…Louisville, Kentucky…Nashville…Las Vegas…Los Angeles…San Antonio…and San Francisco.

Both Verizon and T-Mobile have promised 5G coverage in parts of 30 cities by the end of 2019, and Sprint has started laying the groundwork for its own 2019 5G rollouts. More comprehensive rollouts are planned for next year that will cover much of the rest of the country by the end of 2020, and nearly full coverage with full speed for the US is likely five to 10 years in the ­future—but some of the most rural ­areas may never see 5G.

Verizon also recently became the first to announce that 5G will be treated as a premium service, similar to the way you can add HBO to your current cable-TV package. The company estimated that 5G service will cost $10 more per month than existing data plans. It’s too soon to know if other carriers will do the same, but it would surprise no one. This can be good for users who don’t need that much cellular “fuel.” We eventually will see the low-cost carriers getting into the 5G market, but when and for what price no one knows yet. 

The other complication with rollout timing is the current trade war between the US and China, which could make it more expensive for telecom companies to buy the cell-tower hardware they need to build out these networks.

What about 5G phones? Several cell-phone manufacturers have announced 5G phones, and tablets soon will follow, but the details, prices and specific capabilities have not been released. 

Makers of Android phones are mostly saying that they’ll have at least one 5G phone available this year, and it is not yet clear if Apple will release one this year or hold off on introducing a 5G phone until 2020. Expect 5G phones to start at about $1,000. The first phone to work with Verizon’s network is the Motorola Moto Z3, but to work on a 5G network, it will require a $200 accessory. 

Should I invest in a 5G phone? If you’re not a gamer, if you don’t participate in a lot of video calls or are not someone who has to have the newest technology ASAP, don’t rush to get on the 5G train—your 4G phone will continue to work just fine for the foreseeable future. Given the timetable for 5G rollout, it may be best to wait a year or two to see how the nationwide 5G rollout shapes up. 

Is there a downside to 5G? The ­higher-frequency radio waves that make 5G networks possible have a much shorter range than previous technologies—hundreds of feet versus miles. Many new, smaller cell towers will have to be built in order to achieve comparable coverage. The massive investment in infrastructure will be expensive and some of those costs likely will be passed from carriers to their customers. 

Also, these higher-frequency waves are more likely to be blocked or interfered with by building materials, meaning that consistency will likely be an issue in the early days when providers still are ramping up cell-phone-tower coverage.

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