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Upgrade to a 5G Phone? Let’s Cut Through the Marketing Hype.

Which commercials play “rent free” in your head? Bet one is for 5G. The three major carriers’ advertisements each claim 5G (fifth generation) cellular network technology bragging rights. Fastest! Largest! Most powerful!

Keep in mind the marketing card they play is FOMO (fear of missing out). Their goal is for customers to buy new smartphones to join the “5G revolution.” However, what they’re actually marketing and selling is potential. The reality is that right now, 5G is not available in a majority of the country. Carriers over-promise what 5G can do in the current early stage of 5G.

Each carrier has a map which depicts cities with 5G, but that can be misleading. The fine print states “actual coverage may vary.” The super-fast 5G coverage is often limited to specific areas in a city—in some cases, just a few blocks or even specific buildings. “Generally, we’re seeing exaggerated claims, claims that tout the breadth and depth of 5G service that’s just not yet available to consumers,” said Bonnie Patten, Executive Director of truthinadvertising.org.

Tech talk
5G is more complicated than previous generations of wireless technology. An analogy often used is that of a three-layer cake; each layer is a different spectrum (range of radio frequencies).

  • Low-band spectrum: This bottom layer of the cake, your basic 5G, is closest to the current 4G and 4G LTE spectrums. This is available in most parts of the country where 5G is currently available.
  • Mid-band spectrum: The middle layer has the same coverage territory as low-band but is a bit faster. Buildings and other solid objects can interfere with a smartphone’s network connection.
  • High-band spectrum (millimeter wave or mmWave): The mmWave spectrum is the top layer with all the icing. It provides the high-speed connections and super-fast downloads marketed in the commercials you’ve seen and heard. The most capacity provides the most reliable service. Due to limited range and line-of-sight travel, the spectrum currently has insignificant availability. In current conditions it would work well; for example, a sports stadium, but remains a challenge to cover an entire downtown area.

Due to its limited range, mmWave requires a massive investment in creating new wireless access points. Phil Solis, research director at IDC, a technology consulting firm, said to deliver such service a carrier needs to blanket a downtown area with thousands of small cell stations (possibly attached to telephone poles). Solis predicts that may happen in all populated areas in the U.S. in 2024 or 2025.

The decision to upgrade
The wireless carriers are counting on 5G to boost declining smartphone sales. Their pitch: Buy a 5G smartphone today and future-proof your device. But that’s like buying a sports car and then realizing the limited opportunity to drive over 65 mph.

If you wait to purchase, the phones will improve and prices on the older models will decline. Tech experts agree that there’s no need to rush; if you’re happy with your phone, hold on to it.

If you need a new phone, purchasing one that’s 5G-enabled may make sense. Before you buy, find out if the phone you’re considering can access all of that particular carrier’s 5G bands. Currently, top-of-the-line phones such as the Samsung 20 and iPhone 12 are 5G-compatible. By next year, most new phones will also be 5G-suitable.

If you upgrade to a new 5G phone, you will also need to add 5G service to your plan. So far, there’s no additional charge for the service.

As 5G expands, app makers and game developers will surely take advantage of this new technology. But for right now, if you use a cellphone to talk, text, email, read news and shop, you probably won’t notice any difference using a new 5G phone.

Resources: checkbook.org, truthinadvertising.org, IDC.com, 5Gamericas.org, SDxCentral, LLC