This week, Apple has announced its very first 5G iPhone, shortly after Google recently launched its own $500 5G phone. If you’ve been holding off on making the switch to 5G, now might be the time you start thinking about it. However, 5G phones can be more expensive than the alternatives, so before you take the leap, here’s how you can find out whether or not you can even make use of 5G.
What Are the Benefits of 5G?
Before we get to where you can find a 5G signal, it’s worth questioning whether or not you need it. Which sounds silly, right? Faster speeds? Who wouldn’t need that?! Except with 5G, for now at least, you might not. Especially if you already have a fast wireless connection.
In the US, major carriers have been rolling out their 4G LTE network for the better part of a decade. As a result, the speeds they can carry are already pretty fast. In most places, the average user can pull down around 30-50 Mbps. This isn’t too far off from the average home internet speed. “Average” is the keyword, as both home and wireless internet connections can be wildly subjective. So if you’re used to getting different results, you’ll have to factor that into your needs.
However, 30-50 Mbps is usually enough to stream high-quality video, play music, download apps, and do most other common tasks you’re used to doing. 5G speeds will eventually be useful to enable things like connecting every car or street sign to the internet. But it lacks the same obvious use case for your phone that you can’t already do, but know you want to. Streaming games from services like Stadia and xCloud could benefit from it, but those are still new services themselves.
Before you buy a 5G phone because it has “faster speeds,” ask yourself if there’s something you need those higher speeds for. Do you plan to do a lot of game streaming? Are you in an area where streaming Netflix doesn’t work very well (even then, see below)? Do you usually need to upload large files like video that needs as much speed as you can get? If so, you might have a use for 5G, but even then it might be a bumpy road to getting it.
Does My Phone Support 5G?
This question is more complicated than it seems. If your phone is marketed as being a “5G” phone, then it probably supports some version of 5G. Although even that isn’t necessarily the case, as AT&T showed when it started using a misleading “5G E” label on phones that were only slight improvements on 4G phones. At the time, the company still hadn’t rolling out its 5G network at all.
Even among phones that are accurately described as 5G, though—like the Galaxy S 20 5G, the iPhone 12, and the Pixel 4a 5G—the issue isn’t entirely clear. The problem is support for what’s called mmWave. Without getting too far into the technicalities, this refers to a portion of wireless spectrum that is extremely fast but doesn’t travel very far and has trouble penetrating buildings. The range is so limited that in dense city areas, support often has to be added on a block-by-block basis.
Carriers in the US are still in the process of rolling out 5G networks overall, but mmWave is even further behind. Verizon, the most prominent supporter of mmWave, has extremely limited coverage. At Apple’s iPhone event, the carrier announced that it is expanding support for Ultra Wideband (as Verizon calls it) to “parts of” 55 cities. Unless you live in one of these cities, you might never see mmWave support at all, and even then it could be spotty for a while.
While spotty coverage during rollouts is common during generational network upgrades, mmWave support can add a huge cost to your phone. The 5G version of the Pixel 4a, for example, costs $100 more than the version without it. Some Samsung phones have charged a premium as high as $200 for the feature.
That’s a lot of money for a feature that you might only get to use some of the time, if at all. Tellingly, the newest iPhones will switch off 5G radios and stay on 4G to save battery when 5G networks aren’t in use. Worse yet, AT&T and T-Mobile have slowed their mmWave rollout to a crawl. Even though some newer phones only come with mmWave support, the feature isn’t useful in most places and on most carriers.
If you know you live in an area where your carrier has deployed mmWave coverage, and you’re willing to spend the extra money to get it, then it might be worth buying a phone with it. Otherwise, make sure to research what kind of 5G phone you’re getting, and see if you can get a version without the extra mmWave antenna. Just be sure to also avoid any misleading “5G E” phones while you’re at it.
Where Does My Carrier Have 5G Coverage?
The million-dollar question is whether you, personally, will benefit from 5G. As with every previous generation of networks, the best way to tell is by using your carrier’s coverage map. Once again, though, this is more complicated than it sounds. Verizon’s 5G map, for example, uses color coding to show areas blanketed by typical 5G, but it uses a pulsating maroon dot to indicate cities where “parts of” the area might support mmWave. In this case, even if you want an mmWave phone, for now it would be best to use regular 5G as a guide and treat the occasional mmWave support as a nice bonus.
T-Mobile’s coverage map is a bit more straightforward, but keep in mind that most of it is not mmWave coverage. In 2019, the carrier launched what it called “nationwide 5G,” which is technically accurate, but there are still millions of people who don’t fit into that coverage network, so be sure to check your own area and the places you commonly visit.
AT&T’s coverage map is similar to T-Mobile’s, showing where any 5G deployment exists, but no mmWave. In both cases, the speeds you experience now might not be too different from what you get on LTE. But speeds can increase over time, so if you’re in a coverage area, it might be worth the upgrade. If you’re outside the coverage area, honestly, you’re probably better off waiting.