City with "5G" cast over

5G Cellular Coverage Is Here—But Does Your Business Need 5G?

6 min read • Dec 13, 2020 • Joe Kukura

The phrase you will probably see the most in this year’s holiday season advertising is “nationwide 5G.” This term is an exaggeration, as no one is currently offering nationwide 5G. But it’s only a modest stretch of the truth if you live in the right part of the county and have the right hardware devices. Depending on where you are and what your business does, you might benefit from upgrading to 5G now.

But what is 5G? It’s the shorthand term for “5th generation,” the latest upgrade to broadband cellular service. Your smartphone is probably using 4G service currently, and you were probably on 3G in the early days of smartphones and apps. But 5G will provide service to more than just smartphones—it will also power your computer’s internet service and your home’s connected devices like smart thermostats and voice assistants.

The big wireless carriers are beginning to offer 5G plans, though using the faster, more powerful service requires a premium, new 5G-enabled smartphone. Verizon recently announced they’re offering small business 5G plans starting at $30 per month (though you have to buy at least 5 lines at that price). AT&T is also offering 5G business plans, as is T-Mobile.

It’s fair to wonder whether 5G is all just marketing hype. Remember when we were told that 4K TVs and “curved TVs” would be the next big thing? These things were not the next big thing. But 5G certainly will be because most new smartphones going forward will be equipped with capabilities for it. And consumers will want the smoother mobile video experience and the less-glitchy Zoom video calls.

The 5G currently being advertised is not yet the real 5G. But it could be important for certain small businesses to upgrade to 5G as soon as possible.

Can I Get 5G Where My Business Is Located?

The “nationwide 5G network” each mobile carrier claims to have is not really nationwide. They all span the country, but each has major gaps. We’ve listed the big 3 wireless service providers’ 5G coverage maps below. 

(T-Mobile acquired Sprint in August of 2020.)

Certainly you do much of your operational business in more than one place in the mobile era. But you probably have one location where you do much of your business, so 5G is not much good if your carrier does not offer it in your location.

Understand that the maps linked above are marketing materials. Deep in the fine print beneath them, you see phrases like “Actual coverage may vary” and “Coverage isn’t guaranteed.” That’s just the beginning of the 5G fine print.

The Fine Print on 5G Deals

Most telecom companies made a trade-off. They may call it 5G speed, but they’ve sacrificed some of the speed in exchange for the ability to lower the standard of what they call 5G.

This is an extremely technical point, but it’s broken down well by The Verge. Both Verizon and AT&T use a network infrastructure tactic called “dynamic spectrum sharing” (DSS). The “dynamic” doesn’t mean it’s a super-dynamo—it means that your 5G device will switch back and forth between 5G and the old 4G LTE. 

“The new DSS-based Verizon 5G will be held back by the same limitations as its low-band competitors in exchange for that boosted range,” The Verge explains, though adds that “they should still offer an improvement over existing LTE speeds.”

Still, there will be times when you are paying 5G prices for the old 4G speed and bandwidth.  

You May Need More Specialized 5G Hardware

You’ve probably only seen 5G advertised in the context of commercials for brand new smartphones, though 5G powers more than just smartphones. But if you want to use 5G on additional connected smart devices like security systems or voice assistants, that would require the purchase of 5G-enabled modems, adapters, and routers to operate them.

Does My Business Need 5G?

5G will only work on a very high-end new iPhone or Android device, the ones that sell for prices in the neighborhood of $500 to $1,000. The carriers’ business coverage deals generally require you to buy multiple lines. So this is a pretty substantial investment on a technology that is still a work in progress and at a time when business may not be booming.

So far, the new 5G networks mostly focus on serving the largest US cities. If your business is not located in a large city, there is little reason to upgrade to 5G until that coverage is available in your area.

One of the greatest advantages of 5G is how it will power better service in large crowds, as coverage is still a significant problem at sports stadiums, festivals, and large venues. Obviously, those large gatherings won’t be occurring anytime soon because of COVID-19 restrictions. But if your business is near a space that will someday draw crowds of thousands again when restrictions are lifted, 5G could provide a boost when those crowds begin to return.

You should upgrade to 5G if you’re in a large city that gets 5G coverage and you feel your wireless speed and bandwidth are inadequate. Telecommunications experts say that 5G is 5 times faster than 4G, which certainly addresses the problem. If you do a great deal of video conferencing or virtual events, 5G coverage could make sense for your business.

5G is a lot like artificial intelligence and machine learning. It’s potentially very powerful but being a little oversold right now, and it’s not as “ready for prime time” as its marketing suggests. 5G is not yet fully operational, and some experts warn it has serious security issues that were not resolved before its launch.

But there’s no question that, like artificial intelligence, 5G will indeed be the next big thing. At some point, your small business won’t be able to afford to be without 5G. The question is whether that time is now or perhaps a few years in the future.

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Joe Kukura

Joe Kukura is a San Francisco freelance writer whose work also appears in SF Weekly and SFist. He’s written financial advice for NerdWallet, tech industry analysis for the Daily Dot, sports content for NBC Bay Area, and good, old-fashioned clickbait for Thrillist.