Everyone's Racing to Be First to 5G, but There's Nothing at the Finish Line

5G phones are coming, but they won't even work.

In the race to over-hype 5G, there are few innocent parties. Device manufacturers like Samsung and Motorola all touted the benefits of 5G long before these advances were consumer-ready. Samsung began publicizing their 5G-related research in 2013, and cellular carriers like Verizon and AT&T have also promised timelines for nationwide coverage that they will have trouble meeting. The government has been talking about its efforts to enable 5G-powered networks for more than a decade.

It’s reasonable, then, that US consumers are primed to expect the 5G revolution is upon us. But as the first 5G-branded products begin hitting the market, it’s hard to find evidence that the industry is any less inclined to over-promise.

After all, without the infrastructure to support widely accessible 5G service, devices like the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G and the Moto Z3 are unlikely to be worth the cash. And while every mobile carrier has begun rolling out their mobile 5G networks, anything close to nationwide coverage is still at least four years away, according to CCS Insight. It’s hard to escape the impression that carriers and tech firms alike are running a race to establish 5G dominance when there’s nothing at the finish line (at least, nothing for consumers).

Ben Arnold, the senior director of innovation and trends at the Consumer Technology Association, tells Inverse that a majority of companies have jumped the gun.

samsung galaxy s10 5g
Samsung has launched its 5G phone in Korea, but it might take a while longer before it makes it to the US.

“When the rubber meets the road, a 5G handset is really only as good as the availability of the 5G signal that users have access to,” he said. “You have to balance giving consumers a glimpse of the future, but it has to be evened out by coverage and transparency as to where it is available.”

The CTA’s most recent report forecasts that by 2022, a mere 76 percent of all smartphones sold will be 5G-enabled. That seems like a lot, but when you consider that multiple carriers promised county-wide 5G coverage by 2020, you begin to get a sense of just how long the layover for many consumers could be.

Without the corresponding network, selling a 5G phone right now is essentially like selling a mobile home without a gas tank. Not entirely useless, to be sure, but still lacking one of the key elements you’re paying for. This association between 5G and unsupported advertising claims will only get worse if networks continue using deceptive marketing tactics to fool some users into thinking they’re on a 5G network.

AT&T, for example, has already swapped out the “LTE” symbol on many US customers’ status bars for “5GE,” which you would think means noticeably faster mobile download speeds, but that’s not the case.

at&t 5ge

The company explained in a release that this isn’t an actual 5G network. In fact, it’s a rebranded LTE network that’s been noted to be even slower than some forms of LTE service. Customers who don’t take the time to seek out AT&T press releases over subtle UI changes would obviously interpret this designation as meaning they have been upgraded to 5G. In the long run, this not only diminishes what people will expect of fifth-generation wireless connectivity, but it might also lead them to make uninformed purchases.

These uninformed purchases will also be costly! Samsung began selling its Galaxy S10 5G in Korea starting at 1.39 million won ($1,231) for a 256GB. The 5G Moto Mod, which can be attached to Motorola’s Moto Z3 phone to connect the phone to 5G networks, retails for $350 on top of the phone’s $480 price tag. Those are roughly $1,000 purchases where the main feature will not work for pretty much anyone.

Companies that have held off on offering 5G devices this early in the game, like Apple, have caught some flak for dragging their feet at the consumer’s expense. But when we consider that 5G marketing tactics have already veered into some pretty deceptive territory, Apple’s reputation for caution seems likely to be validated once again. The race to deliver a product that can actually run on 5G is already filled with false starts.

Media via Samsung, AT&T, Inverse, Danny Paez