There is a lot of 5G hype — too much, actually — and it’s much more complicated than the transition to 4G was. On top of complicated technological questions about millimeter waves and modems, there’s also geopolitics, trade wars, gigantic lawsuits between tech titans, and empty buildings in Wisconsin.
We’re tracking all of those stories on The Verge — you can find our 5G coverage right here — but if you just want a quick primer on what’s going on now that 5G phones are starting to be sold in stores and the White House is issuing 5G-related orders, read on.
1. Should I buy a 5G phone this year?
The networks are barely existent, present only in a few cities. Even then, they only work well in certain blocks, and even then, you need line of sight, and even then, you will still have LTE upload speeds.
Oh. Well maybe I should buy a 5G phone anyway since I need a phone right now, and I don’t want it to be obsolete if I keep it for a few years. Is that a good idea?
No. Please don’t do it. The first generation of phones that use new cellular technology is generally pretty bad. They’re big, battery-sucking, inefficient monsters. This year might be a little different since the $1,400 Samsung Galaxy S10 5G looks pretty decent. But even if it’s great, you’ll still be stuck with a phone that costs a ton of money to access a network that is only getting off the ground.
Even if a miracle happens and the networks spread faster than anyone expects, it’s likely that the modem inside your phone won’t be nearly as good as the second- or third-generation modems that are coming next year and the year after that. Qualcomm makes all of the 5G modems for phones in the US right now, and it’s announcing new modems almost as fast as it’s shipping current ones.
(You know what? I’m counting all three of those questions as one question. The answer when we first saw 5G in 2018 was “no.” The answer in 2019 is “no.” Ask me again in 2020 — but no promises on whether the answer will be any different at that point.)
2. What’s with all the 5G hype then?
There are a lot of reasons. Here’s a cynical one: phone sales in the US are really slowing down, and the entire smartphone industry is looking for ways to goad consumers into another wave of expensive upgrades.
Here’s a less cynical reason: when 5G works, it is legitimately, truly fast with super low latency, which could enable a lot of surprising new technologies we haven’t thought of yet. Think about the early days of the smartphone when it seemed like every day, somebody figured out a clever new thing you could do with your phone.
A lot of people are hoping for another wave of innovation like that. Rather, a lot of people are hoping to make a lot of money by convincing you that another wave of innovation like that is about to happen. It might not, though, because 5G networks are way harder to build out than 4G networks were. They require many more cell sites, and the signal can’t easily punch through buildings. So all of the promises of innovation are probably way too optimistic or completely hollow. Wow. That got cynical again, didn’t it?
Well, the truth is that there’s a lot to be cynical about with 5G. Companies are overpromising and underdelivering right now. The gap between the massive amount of marketing about 5G and the number of actual 5G products and services we can test is huge. And in that gap, there’s not a whole lot to do but wait and wonder.
3. I heard there was a whole thing with Apple, Qualcomm, Intel, and 5G. What happened there?
Below is a series of sentences stating facts that just beg to be connected but shouldn’t necessarily be. As you read them, understand that there are two ways to interpret them. One: the way technology works in our day and age is an impossibly complex interplay between massive, semi-monopolistic giants, and sometimes weird coincidences occur. Two: there is a vast 5G conspiracy.
- Qualcomm stands to gain a lot from 5G.
- Qualcomm was in a legal fight with Apple over how it charged for stuff.
- Carriers have hyped up 5G so much that it could feel like any phone that doesn’t have it in a couple of years is doomed.
- Apple had been pushing Intel to get 5G modems right so it could be less reliant on Qualcomm. It didn’t go well.
- Apple decided to settle with Qualcomm.
- Intel announced it’s not making 5G modems anymore.
Should you connect those dots? Some of them, maybe! But probably not all of them. But to answer the question: those are all things that happened.
4. Why is the US government so mad about Huawei and 5G?
The government’s concerns with Huawei predate the current trade war with China, though you’re welcome to connect those on your own time if you like. But don’t try too hard because even though no US carriers sell Huawei phones in the US, lots of other Chinese companies still sell phones here.
The bigger issue is that Huawei makes a lot of the equipment used for networking infrastructure around the world, and it does so cheaper than a lot of its competitors. There are concerns that Huawei is too close to the Chinese government, and all that networking equipment could be a security risk. That allegation is something Huawei strenuously denies and also something we have yet to see concrete evidence of.
Does that mean you can definitely trust Huawei? That’s tough. Other countries are using the equipment, and lots of rural companies in the US would like to, too. The old “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” phrase applies here, especially since so many in the US government are pretty firm about not trusting Huawei. There’s also a whole other issue about extraditing Huawei’s CFO on charges related to fraud.
One thing is for sure: this conflict is escalating.
5. What’s with Foxconn’s factory in Wisconsin that has something to do with “AI 8K+5G”?
Foxconn promised to build a factory to make TVs, which would create jobs. But then that plan changed, and everything has become very weird and very complicated. Everybody started seeing how shady it all was, so Foxconn admitted that it wasn’t building that factory; instead, it said it was going to create a lot of jobs around the hippest things happening in technology. It put together three acronyms that sounded futuristic. 5G, as previously mentioned, has a lot of hype around it.
6. My AT&T phone says “5G E” in the corner. Does that mean I have 5G now?
It does not. AT&T is lying to you with an icon, and the company that makes your phone is helping it do it. For the record, since 5G E isn’t really 5G, I’m not counting this as a question about 5G. (Also, I really wanted to keep the headline down to “five questions” because it’s about 5G.)