Put Your 5G Upgrade on Pause

Don’t get your hopes up too soon. Widespread rollout of the faster wireless service could take years.

By now, you’ve probably heard about the promise of fifth-generation wireless, or 5G, with speeds up to 100 times faster than current networks. But don’t give up your 4G phone just yet. The transition to widely available 5G could stretch for as long as a decade. Even some mobile providers say the rollout will take three or four years, and that pre­diction is “absolutely optimistic,” says Dan Hays, a telecom principal with PwC US (opens in new tab).

Blame physics: 5G data requires dense, higher-frequency radio waves to deliver its blazing speed. But the higher the wave frequency, the shorter the distance it can travel before petering out.

While a 4G tower can broadcast a signal for miles, a 5G tower’s range is about 1,000 feet. “You could have 5G available right outside your building but not have it down the block or inside your building,” Hays says.

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Before a city can adopt 5G wireless, it will need a lot of antennas, both outside and inside our homes. (Imagine 5G poles lining city blocks and router-like boxes in your kitchen.)

Most cities will also need to install miles of fiber-optic internet cable to support full 5G, a capital-intensive upgrade for most of the country’s existing broadband network.

Compared with the transition to 4G, “5G infrastructure is a fundamentally different challenge,” says Ernesto Falcon, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (opens in new tab). “It’s hundreds of billions of dollars of investment.”

Brendan Pedersen
Staff Writer, Kiplinger's Personal Finance
Brendan joined Kiplinger in 2018 and writes about technology, security and money. A Chicagoland native, he graduated from DePaul University with degrees in journalism and political science. Before moving to Washington, D.C., Brendan covered local politics for NBC Chicago and daily news for BusinessDen in Colorado.