Apple’s 5G Phone Beckons — Not Clear 5G Ready For Prime Time

5G. In the United States, it’s already here. Or it’s coming. Or, maybe you shouldn’t hold your breath.

This week marks the debut of the newest iteration of the iPhone, and begs the question: If the biggest of the tech behemoths unveils a flagship phone that is 5G ready, are we ready for 5G?

The plumbing, so to speak, is primed for prime time.

Perhaps not.

Reuters reports that even though the iPhone 12 (the real name will drop this week) cometh, the massive improvements in speeds — estimated to be multiples above the current 4G rates at which data moves back and forth — may not be in the offing.

In an interview with the newswire, Boris Metodiev, associate director of research firm Strategy Analytics, said using 5G-enabled devices (Apple included) is akin to “having a Ferrari … but using it in your local village and you can’t drive to up to 200 miles per hour, simply because the roads cannot maintain those speeds.”

In terms of mechanics, the 5G networks leverage low-band wireless spectrum that is relatively slower than high band spectrum but where the coverage is broader. The highest speeds so far? They’re tied to the 5G known as mmWave (short for millimeter wave) on offer from Verizon, but  coverage is limited. To get that coverage (regardless of carrier) will require massive buildouts of base stations. Here in the states then, having the device enabled for 5G is not proof positive that lightning fast speeds will be part of users’ everyday lives.

To get a sense of some of the technical problems that can bedevil mmWave, at the beginning of this year, LightReading reported that NTT DoCoMo has been testing new window material that will allow for easier transmission of the waves. Into buildings and vehicles.

A September report in The Washington Post noted that tests of download speeds across 5G devices were roughly the same as had been seen on 4G phones.

Thus, what’s billed as 5G may simply 4G, in terms of everyday functionality. That might slow down some widespread efforts to truly get the connected economy off the ground (such as would be seen with smart cities for example).

As noted in this space recently, Apple is shifting its distribution model to use its stores as hubs to get tech into consumers’ hands — with, of course, the 5G as part of the pantheon that can be delivered via FedEx or United Parcel Service (depending on where you are based). In the meantime, however, Apple is coming to market later than Big Tech (Android) peers, as for example, Samsung has multiple devices equipped with next-gen wireless.

Once devices are in hand, or on wrist (if they’re wearables), the latest slate of Apple offerings would ostensibly stand at the ready to leverage 5G when the highest performance speeds kick into gear. But if you offer it, will they buy? Global Wireless Solutions found that roughly half of 5,000 Apple iPhone users believe their phones are in fact capable of accessing 5G. Roughly a third of all smartphone users are not sure if their devices are 5G capable.

Confusion reigns, it seems, and consumers might hold off just a bit before running out to upgrade their phones. Perhaps until they see 5G fully in action — a case of “show me, don’t tell me.”