Not in America? Forget about a mmwave 5G handset this year

Remember the bad old days of needing to scan phone specifications to note supported spectrum bands? They're back.

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Image: Apple

If there is one thing that 5G does not need, it's an extra layer of confusion to be added from handset makers.

For the layperson that has heard about the next fastest phone generation -- and hopefully doesn't believe it spreads coronavirus -- there is plenty to digest, and pitfalls at every turn.

There are various forms of 5G -- which are definitely under the 5G umbrella, but do not provide the blazing fast speeds the next generation is touted to provide -- and then there's a form that will have to be called something like "Full 5G" that actually can deliver over 1Gbps reliably.

The confusion really kicked off when AT&T decided to label its LTE Advanced network as "5GE".

Then there are the actual 5G definitions, such as using 5G radios with a 4G core, labelled non-standalone 5G, and then replacing the core with a 5G one, called standalone 5G.

Following that, if John Q Citizen wants a new phone, they will also need to know about sub-6Ghz 5G, which is when you use 5G protocols on low and mid-band spectrum that are also used for LTE, which is still proper 5G but just not the blazing fast type.

Above the low and mid-band is the millimetre wave (mmWave) spectrum; this is where the top speeds live. Recent testing has shown Verizon's network in the US is a global leader, offering just shy of 500Mbps in real-world tests. The problem with millimetre wave, however, is that its coverage footprint is tiny, so in order to take advantage of it, you currently need to track down a small cell and stand under it.

The other problem with mmWave is that many countries haven't allocated the spectrum for it yet, which brings us back to Mr Citizen looking for a phone. The sad thing is ol' John has probably seen some telco advertisement pushing the new network.

If Mr Citizen is lucky enough to be in the United States, and in particular, a Verizon customer, then he's off to the races -- as well as spotty coverage in 2020 can allow one to do so, anyways.

But if Mr Citizen lives outside the United States, things are trickier to navigate.

Whether it's one of the new Samsung S20 devices, the Pixel 5, or any of the new iPhone 12 models, for non-US customers, 5G is more than likely to mean the device only supports sub-6Ghz 5G.

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Google makes it easy to see what non-Americans cannot have.

Image: Google

So while the phone uses 5G protocols, it will not deliver all the promises that consumers have been told about. It's easy to understand why handset makers do this to keep manufacturing costs down a little bit, especially as some countries have yet to make mmWave available, but it's hardly future-proofing the handsets to any extent.

It's akin to thinking you're buying a twin-turbo car, only to find one of the turbos is blown and the car dealer tells you that's just how they made that particular model this year.

I currently have a Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a 5G on my desk, and after using and enjoying the Pixel 4a a couple of months ago, I can provide the following warning: Don't bother buying these phones for 5G internationally. The 5 has a massive battery and a cheaper price compared to the 4 which could entice you, but skirt the 4a 5G altogether and just head straight for the 4a if that's the price point you are at.

As if to reinforce the point that skipping sub-6Ghz 5G phones for this handset cycle was a good idea, Telstra CEO Andy Penn told ZDNet that users who stay on LTE would see a benefit in performance as some people switch to the newer network.

"They'll get very good speeds on 5G phones, they'll get two to three times what they're getting on 4G," he said.

"What will also happen is that as customers move to 5G, those early customers will be the early adopters; they'll typically be large data users, they'll be going onto the 5G network -- which [has] relatively not as many customers on it now because it's relatively new -- that takes volume of traffic off the 4G network, that just improves the 4G experience, so all boats rise in this tide."

On the issue of future-proofing, Penn said it was a standard problem with technology.

"I think it is always the dilemma, isn't it? In the world of technology, whenever you buy something there's always something coming around the corner that's going to have a little bit more enhanced functionality, gonna be a little bit better. 

"But people will see a big change if they come into 5G now partly because of the handsets. We're on second-generation chipsets now, and also because at least in Telstra's case, we're starting to get to the serious end of the coverage that we're providing," he said.

Another point against the current crop of handsets is that in the iPhone and Pixel, making use of a second SIM will restrict the phone to LTE only, unless one of the SIMs is disabled -- which really defeats the point of both 5G and dual-SIMs.

Unless you are positively pining for in excess of 200Mbps mobile network speeds, and in a pandemic-induced recession have the spare change to pay extra for sub-6Ghz 5G, the most prudent thing would be to skip the handsets late 2020 has on offer and wait to see what the next batch has on offer.

And if you're in America, enjoy finding the small cells for those superfast downloads.

ZDNET'S MONDAY MORNING OPENER

The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America.

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