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5G wireless doesn’t live up to the hype ... yet

5G will be life-changing for nearly everyone, but take a pause before running out and buying a new phone just for this feature

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In this Sept. 26, 2018, file photo visitors stand near a 5G logo at a display the PT Expo in Beijing. AT&T says it will stop advertising its wireless network as “5G Evolution” after an industry group determined it was misleading, as it is not, in fact, 5G.

Mark Schiefelbein, Associated Press

The fifth generation of wireless communication is finally here and has the phones to go with it. AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile are all touting their nationwide 5G coverage with claims of movie downloads in seconds and flawless communication. 

If you’re considering upgrading your phone to take advantage of what the networks and phone manufacturers claim to offer with 5G, don’t drop a thousand dollars just yet.

Let’s talk about the reality of 5G and what it can offer and whether the time is right to make the jump.

5G is designed to give us blazing fast data speeds, more reliability and very low lag time. Imagine no more talking over each other on Zoom calls or waiting forever for large files to upload.

But the real technology jump comes with the realization of the Internet of Things. This is the idea that all physical objects and people will be connected. Think of cars talking to each other, your home anticipating your every need and smart machinery that knows when it’s needed.

In 2001, 3G debuted and gave us all the opportunity to do basic tasks like open email on our phones. Eight years later, 4G brought innovations like streaming video to our devices. And now 5G will launch the capability for billions of people and devices to connect through the internet and share information.

But, we haven’t reached that promised land yet.

PCMag tests cellular networks each year, and this time tried out 5G in 26 cities. It was not blown away by the results, for the most part. “AT&T 5G right now appears to be essentially worthless,” PCMag reported. The results also concluded that T-Mobile 5G speeds were what they would expect from a good 4G network. Verizon did have mind-blowing speeds in some places using high-band 5G — that’s the 5G that is the strongest — but needs more cell towers because it can’t travel as far and gets blocked by buildings. The testers actually found Verizon to be the fastest overall but reported that super fast 5G coverage was hard to find.

T-Mobile announced last week it has nearly doubled its number of 5G cities getting mid-band 5G. Mid-band 5G can go through walls, windows and trees, unlike the blazing fast high-band 5G that isn’t as widely available. The company reports its customers using mid-band are getting average download speeds 7.5x faster than LTE speeds.

You’ll also have to buy a 5G compatible phone. Unless you purchased one earlier this year, your current phone won’t simply pick up 5G. A compatible phone needs different antennas and the new, pricey phones are the only way to get it. 

The just-released iPhone 12 is 5G compatible, as well as several Galaxy models from Samsung and a few offerings from Motorola, LG and Google. 

AT&T and Verizon also require customers to sign up for a new plan if they want access to 5G.

Did I mention the fastest high-band 5G will need more cell towers? These aren’t the huge metal towers of 4G, but instead are smaller boxes that can attach to everything from a light pole to the side of a building. They’re called small cells, but conspiracy theorists believe they could cause negative health effects including the coronavirus. NBC reports people have burned down dozens of the towers in Europe, and Bloomberg notes many U.S. cities are fighting 5G as well.

Live Science explains that 5G is not linked to the coronavirus pandemic in any way, writing that “5G radiation can’t penetrate skin, or allow a virus to penetrate skin.” 

And the American Cancer Society says on its website that “there is no strong evidence that exposure to radio frequency waves from cellphone towers causes any noticeable health effects.” However, they also write no one has proven them to be absolutely safe and that more research is needed.

More research is always needed, but at this time when more of us are working and studying from home, reliable, fast telecommunications are necessary and welcome.

5G is the path to bringing about an amazing connected future that we can’t even envision right now. It will change our lives. The pieces aren’t all in place right now, though, and I would give it another year before dropping thousands of dollars on a new phone and cell plan.

5G is going to be a very big deal, just not quite yet.