Oct 16, 2020

5G is finally here — kind of

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A survey out this month says nearly half of iPhone users in America believe their devices already connect to 5G — but they don't.

Neither elections nor Supreme Court hearings nor social media controversies can stop the autumn announcement of new iPhones. And now, those new iPhones can connect to 5G networks. And you — like me — may be asking yourself at this point: what even is the deal with 5G? 

A survey out this month says nearly half of iPhone users in America believe their devices already connect to 5G — but they don’t. Or they might connect to AT&T’s not-really-5G called 5GE.

I spoke with Shara Tibken, a senior reporter for CNET. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

A headshot of Shara Tibken, a senior reporter for CNET.
Shara Tibken. (Photo courtesy of Tibken)

Shara Tibken: There’s different types of 5G, which is what makes it really confusing. When you think about 5G doing things like remote surgery or self-driving cars, or completely changing our lives, it’s this really fast kind of 5G called millimeter wave. The problem with that is it can’t go through trees, it gets blocked by walls, it doesn’t travel very far. The main company that we’ve seen roll out millimeter wave is Verizon, and you could basically get it on this one street corner in Chicago. The other kind of 5G that we saw T-Mobile come out with, it’s this low-band 5G. It travels way farther, but it isn’t really much faster than 4G. We’re still early days with 5G, so these are all going to get better and the companies are all going to be building out their networks more to kind of have all parts of it. So we will eventually see more of a difference, it’s just still kind of early.

Molly Wood: What about cost? Are carriers charging more for this 5G that, at least at this point, is early and sounds kind of disappointing?

Tibken: It really depends on what carrier you have, because they all have completely different strategies. AT&T, if you want to be on 5G, you have to have a new plan. If you have T-Mobile, they don’t care. You can stay on your current plan. Verizon, if you want to tap into their superfast millimeter wave, you have to go to a new plan. There’s no answer that’s the same for everybody and every carrier. It’s crazy.

Wood: I mean, it is crazy, right? What is the promise here?

Tibken: Right now, what we’re seeing is 5G is about speed. It’s about downloading things quickly. There’s also a feature of 5G that’s really important, which is low latency. So this is the responsiveness of your phone. If you think about going on a Zoom call where your kids are having a band practice and it’s totally out of sync, 5G is something that could help with that. It could make it so you could actually play a song with band members online and be in sync. If you’re wanting a new phone and planning to hold on to it for a long time, you’re going to want to get something with 5G, even if it isn’t something that you’re using right now. Now that Apple is getting into the market, we’re going to see more developers coming up with things that you actually use 5G for.

Wood: Nobody wants to give a lot of air to conspiracies, but there are conspiracies about perceived health problems around 5G. The telecom industry already went through this also with the question of whether cellphones cause cancer. And I just wonder what companies are doing to combat that misinformation, and are they worried that it might slow the rollout at all?

Tibken: I feel like companies are kind of ignoring it, like, “This isn’t a thing, so we’re not going to give it any airtime.” When the coronavirus pandemic first started spreading earlier this year, one of the big conspiracy theories that came out was that 5G causes it or spreads it, or all of these things. So that was something that was debunked really early. I was reaching out to companies involved in 5G being like, “Oh, do you have any comment about this?” and they just would roll their eyes basically, like it was too crazy for them to even respond to. In terms of the other health risks, people are concerned about cancer and things like that, but the FCC and other government organizations have said 5G is safe. They’ll all keep doing testing, but as of now, I don’t think people should be very worried about 5G. These are airwaves that have been out there for a long time. They just weren’t necessarily used for phones. We’ll have to see. But so far, all the science says that these aren’t health concerns. None of the companies, none of the handset makers, are talking about it, or the chip makers or the carriers. Nobody is making this an issue or trying to address it.

Wood: It seems like, at least right now, 5G is rolling out in premium handsets — I’m sure it will be on every phone eventually. Most likely, the plans are going to cost more. If 5G ends up being all that it’s promised to be, and yet it’s really premium, could that create or exacerbate a real have/have not situation?

Tibken: It could, but what we’re seeing with 5G happen is actually there are a lot of lower priced 5G phones coming out. The pricing on 5G phones has dropped way faster than anybody expected. We’re seeing phones that cost under $500 on 5G. Considering that the technology just came out last year, that’s crazy fast. This isn’t just going to be a premium product. Samsung has it’s A series devices that are more like mainstream phones. There are a couple models that have 5G. The new Pixel 4A, that has 5G. We’re going to see even cheaper 5G phones later this year. In China, 5G phones are even cheaper than that — Qualcomm’s newer, lower-end chips. Basically, all of its chips are going to support 5G. We could see $250 5G phones. So this isn’t really a thing where it’s only going to be the premium phones. It started that way because the technology is expensive, but the prices have dropped really, really fast. Basically, within the next year or two, every phone, at least in the U.S., that comes out is going to be 5G.

An iPhone 12 Pro downloading movies and shows on the device, which Apple claims will have 5G, allowing for faster download speeds, more responsive gaming experiences, FaceTime in HD, and more.
5G on iPhone 12 Pro models enables faster download speeds, more responsive gaming experiences, FaceTime in HD, and more, according to Apple. (Photo courtesy of Apple)

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

Shara’s reporting on 5G and the new iPhones and a couple of stories from last week talk about how the White House has continued to push for a national 5G network after floating the idea to not very much approval back in 2018.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the Department of Defense is working on a request for proposals from companies who’d like to build a 5G military network that the DOD could then lease to telecommunication companies, car makers for networked cars, or even factories, according to the Journal. The department owns a bunch of valuable wireless spectrum that it could build on top of, but simultaneously, the FCC wants to auction off some of that spectrum in 2021 to carriers who are trying to build their own 5G networks. The telecoms are heavily lobbying in favor of the FCC’s plan. 

And speaking of the FCC, it has, of course, been a busy week for social media and its stumbling Frankenstein-like efforts to figure out how to deal with disinformation online. You almost have to feel sorry for them a little. Twitter and Facebook both took steps this week to limit the spread of a New York Post story about Joe Biden and his son that was supposedly derived from hacked materials. For months, or even years, researchers have been warning media outlets about not falling for so-called hack and leak campaigns like the one in 2016 that caused a bunch of front-page stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails right before the election.

With this Biden story, most major news outlets handled the leak with sort of the proper skepticism. Facebook worked to limit its spread, basically categorizing it as misinformation, and then Twitter went kind of full hepped-up flailing ferret and just blocked the whole thing even in DMs and didn’t say why for hours, and then said it was because it was based on hacked material. That made the usual right-wing suspects claim conservative censorship again, and now the Senate Judiciary panel is threatening to subpoena Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. On Thursday, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai rolled on in to say that the agency would step in and clarify the meaning of Section 230, the statute that gives general immunity to social media platforms for things their users post online. 

Section 230, which most scholars agree, is due for some refinement, but one suspects that this process, in the middle of the great national poo-flinging that is our political stage right now, is not likely to be well-reasoned, shall we say. We’ll be following these events more next week as they develop.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer