No 5G Phone? No problem. You probably don’t want one anyway

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For most people, it’s smart to stick with a smartphone that isn’t compatible with speedier 5G wireless networks, which are just starting to roll out.

That’s the case even if you think you’ll be hanging on to your next phone for a few years.

Not only are the first-generation 5G phones expensive, their antennas and modems typically work only with particular 5G networks owned by specific mobile carriers.

That could limit your options if you’re trying to get the faster speeds while roaming overseas or on a rival company’s network—or if you decide to switch providers later.

Experts say second-generation phones in the coming year will address those and other shortcomings. The research firm IDC, calling 2019 “an introductory year at best,” expects 5G phones to make up 9% of worldwide shipments next year and 28% in 2023.

4G and 5G coexistence

The move from 4G to 5G is different from past network upgrades. 5G isn’t replacing 4G, like how 4G overtook 3G. Instead, 5G is building on 4G LTE, using updated radios and software.

Right now, if you have an early 5G phone phone and upload videos to Google Photos, you’re actually using a 4G LTE connection for that uplink. 

“This is the first time so many aspects of [the old and new network] are shared,” saidGordon Mansfield, AT&T vice president for converged access and device technology. “Some things we’ll do for 5G are inherently backward compatible and will lift the capabilities of 4G.”

By 2025, 15% of mobile connections in the world will be on 5G, according to a 2019 report by GSMA Intelligence, the research arm of the mobile operator group that hosts Mobile World Congress. But LTE usage will be about 59% by the same year, up from 43% in 2018. (In North America, the split will be more even, with about 47% of 2025’s connections on 5G and 44% on 4G). Even if 5G becomes an even bigger part of the market by 2025 than estimated today, “it will complement rather than replace LTE,” GSMA said in a separate report from last year. 

“For operators in many parts of the world, LTE is and will be the foundation for the next 10 years at least,” the GSMA report said. “LTE speeds are improving, which makes 5G less compelling without new services such as AR/VR.”

The first 5G connections still need 4G

Right now, 5G networks in the US are something called “non standalone.” They need 4G as the anchor to make that initial handshake between a phone and network before passing the device along to a 5G connection. Using non standalone technology allows carriers to roll out 5G more quickly than if they had to completely overhaul their entire networks with new hardware.

“With non standalone mode, [carriers] retain the same 4G core network and simply add 5G radios,”said Durga Malladi, Qualcomm’s head of 5G.

The next flavor of 5G network, called “standalone,” lets a phone go straight to 5G, but it could take several years to roll out in the US and globally. At least through the end of next year, all devices on AT&T’s network will use non-standalone technology, Mansfield said. It’s not until late 2021 or early 2022 that standalone networks will really roll out, he said.

Most of the 5G networks in the US today also rely on 4G for uploads and use only 5G connections for downloads.

That made it less complex for carriers to develop their networks. While you can download a video in record time, uploading one will take as long as it did before — at least for now. 

Verizon deployed 5G for uploads in Providence, Rhode Island earlier this month, but other areas and carriers will have to wait until later this year or next year.  

THE TARGET MARKET

Samsung, Motorola, LG and OnePlus already make 5G phones that use Google’s Android system. Huawei announced one Thursday, though it’s missing popular Google apps because of a U.S. ban on tech exports to the Chinese company.

Although 5G phones are a niche product, IHS Markit said phone makers haven’t been able to keep up with surprisingly strong demand, especially in South Korea.

Samsung said it has sold 2 million 5G phones worldwide since April and expects to double that by the end of the year. Motorola said it has seen “tremendous engagement and excitement” from customers.

But Motorola said such first-generation products primarily suit early adopters who need to be first on the block.

New iPhones out Friday won’t support 5G. Apple typically waits for technology to mature before adopting it.

THE PRICE OF 5G

The speedy wireless technology can add a few hundred dollars to phone price tags. For instance, Samsung’s standard Galaxy S10 phone costs $900; the 5G model costs $1,300, though Samsung said it also showcases the company’s best features, including a larger screen and a better camera. For Motorola, 5G comes as a $350 option for the existing Moto Z series phones.

“This territory is reserved for the leading-edge type of consumer, those willing to sacrifice a bit more money up front to be first,” said Wayne Lam, an analyst at IHS Markit. “Longer term is where the smart money is.”

The price gap is expected to narrow and eventually disappear as 5G becomes a standard feature, Geoff Blaber of CCS Insight said.

NETWORK LIMITATIONS

Even as phone companies make big claims about revolutionary new applications, 5G coverage is limited to certain neighborhoods in a handful of cities. While 5G phones can still connect over existing 4G LTE networks, “are you willing to spend extra for something you might not see consistently until 2021?” IHS Markit analyst Josh Builta asks.

5G is actually a set of wireless technologies using different parts of the airwaves. Each wireless carrier emphasizes a different flavor of 5G, and each one is selling 5G phones designed specifically for its network.

Wireless networks have a history of Balkanization, although it tends to sort itself out. Verizon and Sprint have been using a wireless technology called CDMA, while AT&T and T-Mobile use an incompatible version called GSM. Early on, phone makers produced separate CDMA and GSM models. But as technology advanced, they were able to pack all the necessary antennas and components into universal phones.

Similar all-in-one 5G phones should be fairly common by next year, experts say.

In fact, T-Mobile CEO John Legere suggested the company is holding back on 5G network expansions until compatible phones come out later this year. T-Mobile’s current 5G phones only work with parts of its planned 5G network. Sprint, which T-Mobile is in the process of acquiring, said first-generation phones are intended to show off 5G benefits to those who live or spend a lot of time in the company’s nine 5G markets.

Verizon didn’t return messages. AT&T isn’t offering 5G to consumers yet, although it has rebranded some existing 4G service as “5G E.”

TO WAIT OR NOT TO WAIT

If you can squeeze another year or two out of your current phone, there will be plenty of 5G phones to choose from—including iPhones—by the time you’re ready to upgrade.

But it’s OK to buy a new, pre-5G phone now if you can’t wait. You can always trade that in for a 5G model later. Even if you stick with 4G, experts say you’ll still see speed bump there as phone companies install new equipment.

And IDC is expecting deals on 4G phones to clear shelves for upcoming 5G models.

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