Magid: 5G is coming, but should you care?

Magid: 5G is coming, but should you care?

Verizon announced that it’s rolling out its 5G super-fast cellular service in Minneapolis and Chicago, with about 30 more cities to be announced later in 2019. But before you move to the Windy City or “The City of Lakes,” think about the equipment you’ll need for 5G


Larry Magid 

and whether you will actually notice the difference.

5G stands for “fifth generation,” the next logical step from today’s 4G networks.

So far, there is only one phone that works on Verizon’s 5G network, and it, the Moto Z3 will cost you $240 plus another $200 for the 5G add-on module.  Of course, there will be plenty more 5G phones in the future, and 5G will soon also be offered by AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and other carriers.

As with almost any new technology, 5G offers benefits but before you get too excited, consider whether those benefits are truly beneficial.

Speed and latency

The biggest selling points of 5G are speed and latency, which will vary by carrier, device and application.  In theory you could get as much as 10 gigabits per second, which is 100 times faster than the theoretical top speed for 4G.  But just as you probably aren’t getting anywhere near that top speed on your 4G phone, 5G users won’t see that theoretical top speed on their devices either. Reduced latency means faster response times, which is important in applications where milliseconds matter.

I didn’t fly to Chicago to test 5G during the official roll-out but reviewers from The Verge and other outlets who did pronounced it lightning fast but limited in coverage. The coverage will of course get better but, when considering the benefit of that extra speed, think about what you do with your phone.

For most consumers, the most data intensive tasks that we do on our phones is to download or watch video.  In theory, 5G will let you download a full movie in a few seconds, which is great, but most of us stream video and, in my experience, I can start viewing a streamed Netflix movie on my 4G phone within a couple of seconds. The only time I download video is to watch when I’ll be offline, and I can do that from my home WiFi network.

I do think people will appreciate 5G if they use their phone to create a WiFi hotspot that they can use for their laptop or even home video streaming device like a Roku. But don’t even consider this unless you have an unlimited data plan.

I write this fully aware that pundits, for decades, have dismissed technology innovations only to later find out that they were extremely useful.  In 1943, IBM president Tom Watson reportedly said “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers,” and in 1977 Digital Equipment Corporation president, Ken Olson said “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Microsoft founder Bill Gates is quoted as once saying “When we set the upper limit of PC-DOS at 640K, we thought nobody would ever need that much memory.” Of course, that was true at the time. What Gates didn’t say was that not only would computers become more powerful, but so would the demands placed by software and applications.

And therein lies the future of 5G. You may not need it to make phone calls, download email, surf the web or even stream video, but you may greatly appreciate it if you are riding in an autonomous vehicle that can take advantage of its speed and reduced latency to make instantaneous maneuvers based on data that it’s accessing. You may someday thank 5G for helping to save your life if you someday have an operation performed by a remote surgeon using a high-speed network connected to robotic surgical equipment.

Future virtual and augmented reality applications may also benefit from super-fast networks as will drones that can communicate with each other. Online gaming, where speed and latency often matter, may also get a boost from 5G. Even human-driven cars will be able to take advantage of the networks by communicating with each other to help avoid collisions.

Roadblocks

There are some roadblocks in 5G’s path. For one thing, the networks will take a long time to fully deploy. 5G, which has a shorter range than 4G and requires more antennas in more places. That not only means lots of work for the carriers, but possible resistance in communities that don’t want these boxes ubiquitously installed on utility poles, traffic lights and other mounts.

There has already been pushback in some communities over health concerns. I’m not alarmed or even worried, but it’s foolish to unleash any technology without at least exploring potential risks. As Harvard Law professor Susan Crawford wrote in Wired, “it feels to me that the scientific concern about 5G health effects is relatively underfunded and that there’s a lot of denial and confusion about the health risks.” She likens the industry-fueled enthusiasm over 5G to the debate over climate change, “where denial rhetoric has been driven by companies interested in maintaining the status quo, the wireless industry is vitally interested in assuring us that 5G poses no issue.”

In February, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) criticized the FCC and FDA for “failing to conduct any research into the safety of 5G technology, and instead, engaging in bureaucratic finger-pointing and deferring to industry.”

I haven’t seen any convincing evidence that 5G is dangerous to humans, but I also haven’t seen it exonerated from possible health risks. It may very well be as safe as industry claims and as the National Cancer Institute has reported about older cell phone technologies which it proclaimed to at least not be associated with increased risk of brain cancer. Or maybe not, which is why it’s important for more ongoing publicly funded research which, if it confirms what industry and many scientists are saying, will put the public at ease.

Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.

Published at Thu, 04 Apr 2019 18:58:41 +0000