5 reasons to remain skeptical about 5G in 2019

Don't buy into the hype: The 5G revolution isn't ready yet. Here are five big reasons to take everything you're about to hear with a healthy grain of salt.

5G 2019
geralt, modified by IDG Comm

Have you heard? Some vaguely defined but super-snazzy-sounding thing called 5G is, like, totally coming to knock your socks off any second now. It's gonna speed up your phone, revolutionize your productivity, and probably even lower your cholesterol.

Okay, so maybe some of that is pure poppycock. But you know what? So is the very idea that 5G is anything an average person should get excited about — or consider adopting — in the coming year.

You'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise. After all, the mobile tech marketing machine has been revving up considerably over these past few weeks, pushing out all sorts of spectacular-sounding narratives about how 5G is going to change the way we work, live, and lather. (Again, at least one of those items is my own nonsensical creation, but I'd argue that all of them are equally absurd.)

Lemme tell ya: You can safely ignore all that hype — regardless of who or what is spewing it. The reality is that 5G is going to be a slow-moving progression that's more menace than messiah for the foreseeable future. And as an educated tech observer, you'd be well-advised to watch it from a distance without investing an ounce of your own money or mobile tech energy in the effort.

Let's break down the reasons, shall we?

1. Limited availability of 5G networks

No matter how much the carriers may crow, 5G is going to be extraordinarily limited in real-world application for 2019 — and likely even further down the road than that. Remember when 4G first came along and how long it took for that to mean much of anything outside of a few select areas? By all counts, we'll be looking at an even more extreme version of that reality with the 5G rollout.

The data says it all: AT&T, which is generally seen as leading the 5G charge in these (allegedly) United States of ours, is planning to have just 19 cities up and running with 5G by the end of 2019. Nineteen cities. By the end of 2019. And that doesn't even tell the whole story.

By its very nature, y'see, 5G is a short-range technology. The estimated range of an average 5G tower is a mere third of a mile, as my fellow skeptic Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols pointed out earlier this year. Compare that to a 4G tower, which can spread its connectivity-love as far as 30 miles (and sometimes even more), and you can see the sort of difference we're facing.

What that ultimately means is that 5G, in its current incarnation, will require a lot of towers for just a little bit of reach. The issue is compounded by the fact that the signals also have a tough time making their way through walls, signs, salamanders, and other interfering objects.

If we feed that data into the nearest Carrier Marketing Nonsense Translation Machine, what we get back is this: Setting up 5G in a city is going to be slow and expensive, and when someone says 5G is "coming to a city" in 2019, what they really mean is that it's "coming only to a handful of isolated areas within the city" — not that it'll be widely available throughout the entire place.

Beyond that, it seems quite possible that the speeds themselves won't even be consistent from one area to the next. As the maker of AT&T's first 5G hotspot told The Verge: "It varies market to market — some markets, they may have a couple hundred megabits of bandwidth ... [while] others can go all the way up to 5Gbps."

Oh, and one other factor to keep in mind: The nature of these new 5G towers is raising fresh concerns over cancer risks — to the point that one Bay Area city has actually blocked the installation of such structures until their safety can be further evaluated. Whatever you want to say about the health risk itself, that sort of concern and resulting resistance sure isn't gonna speed things up any when it comes to network deployment.

2. Expensive service

You know what mobile carriers simply adore? Any reason to charge you more money. And you know what the big, bold, ad-ready concept of 5G gives 'em? Yup, you guessed it: a perfect reason to ask you to cough up extra shekels.

And you'd better believe they're gonna be hopping on the opportunity. Already, AT&T is hinting strongly that we should be ready to open up our wallets if we wanna do the 5G dance.

"I don't think you can think about it as we think about pricing today," AT&T's senior vice president of vague foreboding statements — er, sorry, of wireless product marketing — told CNET at a lavish Hawaii media event held by Qualcomm last week. "That paradigm has to shift."

A Verizon exec echoed the sentiment, telling the site: "Verizon believes customers will pay for utility and value. There will be that, definitely, in 5G." ("Verizon also believes most customers will pay whatever we put on their bills without asking questions," he forgot to add with a cackle.)

Getting a bit more specific, AT&T's consumer wireless chief is quoted as saying the company is considering "different tiers of service" for its 5G plans — including, apparently, the possibility of having separate pricing tiers for different types of activities you might perform on a device. Lovely, no?

And Sprint, not to be outdone, explicitly told investors to expect healthy price hikes with its 5G service. Specifically: "We're going to have a lot of room to increase our price of unlimited to get to similar prices as Verizon and AT&T in the future. ... We're looking at 5G as an amazing opportunity for the company not only for the position of the company, but also to charge for the blazing fast speeds."

I somehow suspect that line won't make it into the ads.

3. Limited and expensive device options

Network availability aside, remember that the vast majority of phones aren't even going to support 5G in 2019. Such support will be more the exception than the rule, with a small number of 5G-capable devices popping up — and, naturally, coming with elevated prices of their own.

OnePlus's CEO has estimated that 5G phones could cost you a cool $200 to $300 more than their non-5G counterparts. Other companies are being a bit more coy and seem to be doing a delicate dance around the subject without technically saying they won't charge an arm and a leg for the 5G "privilege."

For example, when asked by CNET about the possibility of having higher prices for a 5G phone, Samsung's SVP of mobile said: "If you generate enough value [in the phone], then consumers will be ready to pay." (He may or may not have followed that remark with an exaggerated wink.)

Qualcomm's president, meanwhile, compared the coming cost increase to the jump we saw when first moving from 3G to 4G phones. He noted that things would "get cheaper with scale," saying: "You have to start somewhere."

Well, they have to start somewhere, anyway. You don't.

4. A lack of cross-carrier compatibility

It took years to get here, but we've finally reached a point where it's possible to buy an unlocked phone and use it on almost any network you want. That freedom is what allows devices like Google's Pixel phones or the various OnePlus products to exist and what allows us as purchasers of said devices to get our gadgets wherever we want and take them wherever we go — without the carrier middleman meddling in our affairs and keeping us chained to their cells, as they did for so long.

Well, with 5G, expect that luxury to fade away. For now, at least, every carrier seems to be adopting its own 5G standard — both within the U.S. and elsewhere in the world — and that means any 5G phone you buy in 2019 will likely be limited to working on one carrier's network and nothing more.

On a broader and even more troubling level, that means unlocked phones — like, y'know, the ones sold by Google and OnePlus — probably won't come with the same level of automatic universal compatibility they now enjoy once 5G is in the equation. And I don't even want to think about what it'll be like to try to travel internationally with a 5G phone, particularly as the networks evolve and the standards continue to shift.

5. Devices with compromises and short shelf-lives

Speaking of device-related downsides, does the name HTC Thunderbolt ring a bell? The Thunderbolt was the first Verizon 4G device, released way back in the ancient era of 2011. It was, to put it nicely, a steaming hot mess.

Now, some of the Thunderbolt's woes were likely the fault of HTC and unrelated to anything about the device's "first!" network bragging right. But when it comes to the phone's legendarily bad battery life and connectivity issues, it's hard not to suspect that early and not-yet-perfected 4G configuration was at least in part to blame.

I'm certainly no psychic — heck, I don't even have a crystal ball — but given recent history and what we generally know about how quickly mobile tech evolves, I'd sure be hesitant to pick up one of the first 5G phones. It doesn't seem like a stretch to say those devices are likely to sport serious compromises in areas like battery life, given the new and unrefined nature of these 5G network connections. And then there's the field of form and design: Already, the fickle nature of 5G connectivity is requiring device-makers to come up with some funky modifications to work around antenna requirements and keep a device's signal from being blocked by a user's hands. (For the love of all things holy, let's hope we don't end up in another "holding it wrong" scenario.)

At best, the early 5G phones are going to become outdated quickly as standards coalesce and the tech surrounding them is adapted to better handle the requirements. At a time when it's becoming increasingly superfluous to buy a new smartphone every year — or even every two years, if you plan wisely — dropping extra dough on a phone that's likely to be dated in a matter of months (and with little resale value, at that, particularly given the limited carrier compatibility) doesn't seem like the most advisable move.

All considered, the smart strategy for now is to treat 5G for what it is: an incredibly early, almost experimental kind of connection that's nowhere near ready for prime time. Watch it from afar and see how things develop — and keep your skepticism guard up high as the hype machine gets ready to kick into high gear.

We'll meet back here at the end of 2019 to see how things are shaping up and reassess from there. Until then, keep your G-level firmly grounded at four and your wallet firmly tucked into your trousers. Despite what certain forces will be working overtime to make you believe, this is one game where hesitation is an asset — and where waiting is the only move to make.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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