This story is part of our Summer Preview, a collection of features, guides and reviews to help you navigate warmer months ahead.
On paper, 5G will make your jaw drop. Its highest speeds beat most home broadband connections by orders of magnitude. With it, YouTube videos load in a snap, entire seasons of TV download in seconds. More crucial than any anecdote or benchmark, however, is the answer to a simple question: How will this technology change the way I live my life?
After spending some time surfing 5G’s futuristic airwaves humming with hype, I can tell you with firsthand knowledge: it probably won’t. At least not yet.
Officially, in its broadest definition, 5G stands for fifth-generation cellular wireless. It’s the successor to 4G and a cousin to LTE. New phones will support it and older phones will not. As far as the marketers are concerned, 5G is synonymous with speed. But under the hood, 5G is a digital chimera — a marriage of two different technological means suited to a similar end.
One half, known colloquially as “sub-6,” is quickly blanketing the nation. In large part a software upgrade, this flavor of 5G operates on the same general airwaves your phone currently uses and shares the same general characteristics, spreading far and wide from tall, distant towers that combine to cover a large area.
The other half, often called “millimeter wave,” is the sexy bit. Utilizing extremely high-frequency airwaves never widely used by mobile devices before, it delivers blistering speeds of 1,000 megabits per second or higher. But it comes with significant downsides: these waves don’t travel far, and they are easily blocked by walls, buses and trees; and for now, they’re only pumped out of little black antennas on top of streetlights in a handful of cities across the country.
When 3G and 4G rolled out, they were a revelation because they offered access to something cable connections had created years before: an internet built for broadband. In 2020, 5G is pushing unprecedented speed, so the cart is leading the horse. When I booted up my 5G phone, I excitedly benchmarked its speed, downloaded a few large files … then went about my day as faster speeds hummed imperceptibly in the background. Millimeter wave, which packs almost all of 5G’s significant punch, is much more like Wi-Fi than the all-encompassing “mobile” networks we’re accustomed to. They act as a series of high-speed islands you need to seek out and find reason to stand in.
In my time testing 5G around New York — primarily with a Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ on AT&T’s network — my experience was almost entirely with sub-6, as your first dabbles with 5G will be, too. That initial test revealed that 5G is still impressive … if not life-altering or consistent.
My daily trek home from midtown Manhattan to the west side of the Hudson River weaves through the heart of one 5G’s beachheads in New York City. With my eyes glued to the signal icon on my phone’s status bar (with admittedly little regard for my own safety), I’d catch the signal flicker between 5G and LTE a dozen or more times. On trips using my phone like a normal human being would — reading Twitter, checking Instagram, streaming music, watching the occasional YouTube video — I never once noticed any change in performance the way I do when, on the bus home along rural stretches to my parents’ house in upstate New York, I instantly detect the occasional downtick to 3G load times and the relief of return to LTE.
I noticed 5G most when I was explicitly running the numbers: standing on the corner of 5th Avenue and 28th Street in the bustle of Manhattan, holding two phones for comparison and watching a Netflix video load slightly faster on the futuristic network. Quantitative metrics were more definitive: running seven speed tests in a row while sitting in the Lincoln Tunnel or walking along the edge of the Hudson River, the advantage for 5G made itself plenty clear in the numbers. But aside from edge-use cases like downloading entire discographies, multiple seasons of a television series or high-definition mobile games (all of which will absolutely demolish your data cap if you have one), the difference between 20 megabits of download speed and 200 is like the difference between a Porsche 911 and a V12 Ferrari. One’s faster than the other, but most people would ever notice.
I can imagine a future where this is no longer true — and so can carriers and tech companies. It’s a world where airports and bus stops are blanketed with millimeter-wave radio waves as a matter of course, and you can seek out a hotspot to download four gigabytes of video before you take off, or stream 4K PC-grade video games to your phone through a service like Google Stadia or Microsoft Project xCloud. Or, looking even further down the road, loading a terabyte of augmented reality apps onto your iGlasses. But we aren’t there yet. And the arrival of robust 5G doesn’t bring us there; it just sets the stage.
In the meantime, 5G charges on. Samsung’s new flagship S20 is among the first crop of phones to support both flavors of the technology by default (previous handsets focused on one or the other and cost a premium for the privilege). There’s a good chance Apple’s next iPhones will as well. Carriers are beginning to roll out 5G data plans using a variety of strategies, from offering 5G access for free on existing unlimited plans to offering it at a monthly premium. All, of course, are designed in part to lure you off any particularly affordable plan you may have found yourself grandfathered into.
My advice for the meantime? Resist the 5G temptation, insofar as you have no particular use in mind. Its most impressive advantages are, for now, few and far between. Once superfast millimeter wave blankets public spaces as a matter of course and data caps inflate to allow monstrously huge files, the calculus will assuredly change. For now, however, 5G is a fabulous foundation still waiting for the house to be built on top.
A version of this story originally appeared in a print issue of Gear Patrol Magazine. Subscribe today.