Mobile World Congress 2019 is currently in full swing, and aside from all the ambitious, weird, and sophisticated new handsets on display at the show, without a doubt the other big topic for the show is 5G.
By now almost all the major carriers have already started deploying 5G networks, and with the announcement of the Galaxy S10 5G, a new 5G modem from Qualcomm, and even more 5G-ready phones to follow at MWC, it sort of feels like we’re reaching a critical mass for 5G momentum.
5G is supposed to mark the 5th generation of mobile communication, and with it, tech companies have been making lofty promises about what cell networks could offer in the not-too-distant future. We’re talking about mobile data speeds potentially in excess of one Gbps, latencies of less than five or 10 milliseconds, and networks robust enough to handle the quickly growing number of IoT devices.
But before anyone goes on a 5G tech spending spree this year, there are three big things that have me feeling bearish on 5G between now and 2020.
5G is barely available
The first problem is the limited availability of 5G networks. It’s true that depending on where you live, you might be lucky enough to have 5G coverage in your area. In the US, outside of places like New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and a handful of metro areas in Texas, there’s very little 5G signal to be found. (Just take a look at these maps for a general sense of where 5G coverage is really at.)
Despite being announced back in August 2018, there’s still no official info on when the 5G Moto Mod will be available.
In the UK, hopefully things should be a little better – but unless you live in a major city, you'll still have to wait a while. EE will be turning on 5G in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast, Birmingham and Manchester by the middle of 2019, and another 10 cities will join that lineup by the end of the year.
Other networks shouldn't be too far behind. Vodafone plans to have 1,000 5G sites active by 2020, and Three plans to launch its 5G network at some point in 2019, too. O2, on the other hand, has already said that it won't be launching its 5G commercially before 2020. Realistically, smaller townships, suburbs and more rural areas will likely be waiting a couple more years until 5G is reliably available. Perhaps longer, since some areas are still waiting for reliable 4G.
5G phones will be way too expensive
The second concern for 5G is all the money you’ll need to spend upgrading your tech. Unless you are the unicorn that bought a Moto Z3 last year hoping to be the first kid on the block with a 5G mod, anyone even thinking about trying out mobile 5G will need to buy a new phone. That’s means at minimum, you’re looking at spending at least $500 on a new phone, plus whatever the cost of the Moto 5G mod will be.
Alternatively, if you’re thinking about buying a more “traditional” 5G-ready phone that doesn’t need separate attachments, consider this: Back in December, OnePlus founder Carl Pei said that he expects the company’s upcoming 5G phone to command a £200+ premium over a normal 4G phone. That’s a lot of extra dough to spend on a phone for somewhat nebulous benefits.
How much are you willing to pay to see a 5G icon in your phone’s notifications bar?
Meanwhile, even though Samsung listed prices for the new Galaxy S10 range, and the painfully expensive Galaxy Fold, Samsung did not provide pricing for the Galaxy S10 5G. But if we do some rough math and use the S10+ price tag as a starting point, and then factor in the S10 5G’s giant 6.7-inch screen, its two depth-of-flight cameras, and its all-important 5G modem and antennas, we’re looking at a phone that could easily cost £1,500 or more.
It’s a sort of similar situation for LG’s V50 5G because even though it was announced, neither LG nor Sprint (the V50's first 5G carrier) has announced pricing for the phone. Additionally, it seems like phone makers know these phones will be hard to move based purely on the inclusion of 5G, so both LG and Samsung added things to their 5G phones like depth-sensing cameras or a dual-screen accessory to help increase their value.
In short, anyone thinking about getting a 5G phone in 2019 will need to have more than $1,000 to burn, and that’s not even considering if 5G phone plans will likely cost more than normal, which is something carriers haven’t talked about yet.
5G’s coolest applications don’t exist yet
Finally, for most people, the speed isn’t worth it. At least not yet. That’s because one of the promises of 5G is the ability to have all sort of devices like drones, cars with cell connections, TVs, and more, all connected to each other all the time so that they can communicate on a super fast wireless network. The problem is that all those various 5G-devices and 5G apps don’t really exist yet.
Right now, if you were to have a 5G phone attached to a 5G network functioning at peak speeds, what would that actually give you? You could probably download a ton of movies and music real quick, but if you’re thinking about streaming, it’s not like there’s an abundance of 4K content to watch.
Samsung’s 5G MLB demo app was cool, but not something that can be replicated at scale yet.
At Samsung’s booth at MWC, the company demoed an S10 5G running off of what was purportedly a live 5G network that was displaying a stream of an MLB game where you could control the video feed from a number of different cameras. It’s a neat application of the massive bandwidth 5G offers, allowing you to switch from the camera behind home plate to one pointed at first base. But the app was a one-off creation, not something any baseball fan can get just by purchasing a 5G phone.
And with the possibility of sub 10ms latency on 5G, you might be able to play multiplayer games like PUBG, or Smash Bros or Apex Legends (via mobile tethering) with the same kind of lag-free experience you get on wi-fi at home. But that’s about it. The power of the so-called 5G revolution only happens when every device can tap into those kinds of speeds, not just a single device.
As far as 2019 goes, the main groups that might be able to use mobile 5G effectively are businesses that can take advantage of all that bandwidth to send massive files securely back and forth between various off-site locations.
5G is still the future
Now all this doesn’t mean I’m down on 5G, as the tech has tons of future potential. Testing out new tech is fun, and being an early adopter gives you first-hand experience observing how new platforms ecosystems develop over time. But for 2019, it’s important to realise what mobile 5G really is: a glorified beta test. At best, it’s like pre-ordering something or funding a Kickstarter, both of which are moves fueled more by hopes and dreams than anything based in reality.
So if you’re someone with spare cash lying around, and you are curious about 5G – or are the kind of person who likes posting “First” in YouTube videos – go ahead, dive into 5G. But for everyone else, you’ll save a bunch of money by waiting, and with 5G adoption rates for phones only expected to hit 0.4 percent in 2019, you won’t miss out on much either.