A big boost in speed and responsiveness is just the tip of the iceberg for the next-generation wireless technology.
After years of hype and a bumpy first year of launches, carrier 5G networks are here. The technology is supposed to change your life with its revolutionary speed and responsiveness. But before we get into that, it’s important to understand what the technology is, when and how it will affect you, and how to distinguish between (the still growing) hype and reality.
Last summer, CNET held a massive speed test of 5G networks around the world, spanning from Chicago to London to Sydney to Seoul. The results were a mix of ludicrous speeds, but limited range and spotty coverage. Conversely, you would see wider coverage with a modest bump in speed. You also saw devices like the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G roll out. The early generation of 5G phones boasted impressive speeds at times, but we cautioned against buying them because of compatibility issues and other problems that arise with new technology.
Just like with everything else, you have to give 5G some time to mature.
Things are certainly getting better — carriers continue to expand 5G coverage into more cities, and new devices compatible with multiple networks are coming out. But just how quickly that life-changing aspect of 5G will arrive remains up in the air. That’s exacerbated by the novel coronavirus, which has locked down millions around the world, potentially slowing the 5G rollout and dampening consumer enthusiasm for pricey new devices, even with those stimulus checks.
All this means 5G is slowly inching from years of promises — ever since Verizon talked about moving into the area four and a half years ago to AT&T kicking off the first official mobile network at the end of 2018 and T-Mobile going nationwide in December — to becoming reality for more than a handful of early adopters. Beyond a big speed boost, 5G has been referred to as foundational tech that’ll supercharge areas like self-driving cars, virtual and augmented reality and telemedicine services such as remote surgery. It will eventually connect everything from farming equipment to security cameras and, of course, your smartphone.
Anything I should worry about?
High-frequency spectrum is the key to that massive pickup in capacity and speed, but there are drawbacks. The range isn’t great, especially when you have obstructions such as trees or buildings. As a result, carriers will have to deploy a lot more small cellular radios, creatively named small cells, around any areas that get a 5G signal.
What about health risks?
There have long been lingering concerns that cellular signals may cause cancer. Unfortunately, there haven’t been a lot of studies to conclusively prove or disprove a health risk.
That opens the door to concerns about 5G. While some of those networks will run at super-high frequencies, researchers note that it still falls under the category of radiation that isn’t supposed to be harmful to our cells.
Still, critics say there isn’t enough research into this issue and that the studies that have been conducted weren’t adequate. The World Health Organization lists cellular signals as a potential carcinogen. But it also lists pickled vegetables and coffee as carcinogens.
Still, it’s something people are worried about.
What does 5G have to do with COVID-19?
Nothing. There’s a conspiracy theory going around, propelled by YouTube videos and articles pushing the idea that the super-high frequencies used in 5G networks are contributing to, or even causing, the coronavirus. That is categorically untrue, with scientists and doctors lining up to squash this idea.
Keep in mind that in most of the countries where COVID-19 has hit, the networks in use don’t even use that millimeter wave spectrum that people are fearful of. In the US, it’s only been deployed in select areas.