What Is 5G and Is It Worth It To Upgrade?

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If you need faster mobile data, or if you’re about to upgrade your phone, you may be wondering whether or not 5G is worth paying for.

In this article, I’ll explain what 5G is, where you can find the best 5G coverage and how to determine whether or not it’s worth upgrading your phone or service plan.

I’ve looked into the best and most affordable phones and service plans that offer 5G, and I’ve looked at coverage maps to figure out how much 5G actually costs and who can benefit from it. 

Table of Contents:

What Is 5G?

5G is the newest generation of mobile networks following 4G/LTE. With 5G, you can expect higher download speeds when using mobile data, lower latency (the time it takes for a device to respond to information or an action), increased reliability and more network capacity. 

Basically, 5G is faster and more stable than 4G, and it’s capable of connecting a lot more devices. 

While 2022 is a big year for 5G as far as network expansion and device availability, it still isn’t completely built out. T-Mobile has been expanding its 5G network for some time now, but AT&T and Verizon are still working on providing more coverage to rural areas. 

To get a better idea of how 5G works, here’s a brief description from Business Insider

The 5G standard uses millimeter waves, which are a lot shorter than the wavelengths 4G uses. The shorter wavelength means 5G can carry a lot of data much faster than 4G, but it also means a much shorter range. 4G wavelengths have a range of about 10 miles. 5G wavelengths have a range of about 1,000 feet, net even 2% of 4G’s range.

Ultimately, while 5G provides faster speeds, it isn’t yet accessible in all areas. Because 5G isn’t available everywhere and not every device supports 5G service, many people are wondering whether 5G is worth paying more money right now.

Who Has the Best 5G Coverage?

If you’re thinking about upgrading to 5G, one of the most important questions to ask yourself is whether or not you’ll have access to 5G service in your area. This will mainly depend on which phone service provider you use. 

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According to a recent study published by RootMetrics, T-Mobile offered the best 5G experience in the second half of 2021. T-Mobile won in two of three categories: 5G availability and 5G speed. Verizon won the third category: 5G reliability. Based on a market analysis by Ookla in the first quarter of 2022, T-Mobile is still the best when it comes to 5G performance and availability.

To get a better idea of the 5G service offered by each of the major phone service providers and their MVNOs, I checked out each carrier’s coverage map and scores from RootMetrics and Ookla.

T-Mobile’s 5G Coverage

According to RootMetrics, T-Mobile offered the best overall 5G experience in the second half of 2021. Based on more recent data from Ookla in the first quarter of 2022, T-Mobile continues to offer the best 5G performance and availability.

In the first half of 2021, T-Mobile won first place for 5G availability but came in third for both speed and reliability. By the second half of the year, T-Mobile had surpassed AT&T and Verizon in the 5G speed category while keeping its title of best 5G availability. You can read a summary of the entire RootMetrics study here.

Based on Ookla’s study of Q1 2022, T-Mobile’s 5G performance is keeping its first-place title for 5G performance this year. In fact, the T-Mobile 5G network provided a median download speed nearly double its nearest competition:

5G Performance of T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T according to 2022 study by Ookla.
Source: Ookla

Despite T-Mobile’s great nationwide scores on 5G service, it’s still important to see if you’ll have 5G access in your area before making any decisions. The best way to do this is by checking T-Mobile’s coverage map.

T-Mobile's coverage map
Screenshot from T-Mobile

You can visit T-Mobile’s website and enter your address to see the specific type of coverage you can expect in your area. 

If you’re using a T-Mobile MVNO such as Tello, Mint Mobile or Boost Mobile, check the details of your plan to ensure you have access to 5G networks. You can also view these specific service providers’ coverage maps online to make sure you’ll have access to 5G service in your area. 

With T-Mobile or a T-Mobile MVNO, you likely will.

Verizon’s 5G Coverage

While T-Mobile won the title of best 5G availability and 5G speed, Verizon beat both AT&T and T-Mobile in 5G reliability based on RootMetrics’ study. The study also highlighted that Verizon improved its 5G availability in many cities across the country and showed improved speeds in the second half of 2021.

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In Ookla’s most recent study, Verizon continued to show improvements from 2021 to 2022 so far and came in second for 5G performance behind T-Mobile. The two companies nearly tied for first place in the 5G consistency category.

Clearly, the landscape of 5G is changing rapidly. If you’re thinking about upgrading to a 5G device with service on Verizon, it’s important to make sure you’ll have access to 5G service in your area. You can do this by checking Verizon’s coverage map.

Verizon's coverage map
Screenshot from Verizon

The red dots on the map indicate 5G ultra wideband service. You can see the interactive coverage map online to search for your address or location. Then, you’ll be able to see what type of service you’ll have in your area. 

If you use a Verizon-owned service such as Visible or a Verizon MVNO like Total Wireless or Twigby, check to see if your specific plan offers 5G accessibility. You can also find the coverage map on each of these cell phone service providers’ websites to determine if you’ll have 5G access at home. Check out our Twigby review and reviews of several other Verizon MVNOs for more information.

AT&T’s 5G Coverage

While AT&T didn’t win in any of the three categories tested by RootMetrics, the study does indicate strong 5G reliability and improving 5G availability from AT&T in the second half of 2021

In the first half of the year, AT&T had the fastest 5G download speeds. In the second half of the year, AT&T moved into second place for both reliability and availability. Over the course of 2021, AT&T increased its total of 5G availability wins by 18 markets and reliability wins by eight markets of a total 125 tested. You can read more about the RootMetrics study here.

In Ookla’s study during the first quarter of 2022, AT&T fell last in 5G performance and consistency, but it did place second in 5G availability behind T-Mobile. If AT&T does offer 5G coverage in your area, you can expect decent reliability. However, AT&T’s 5G download speeds likely won’t be as fast as T-Mobile or Verizon. Remember to check AT&T’s coverage map to see if you’ll have service in your area. 

AT&T's coverage map
Screenshot from AT&T

You can view the interactive coverage map online and enter your location to see the available service options. 

If you’re considering an AT&T MVNO such as Boost Mobile, Cricket Wireless or H2O Wireless, check the details of your plan to see if it includes 5G access. If it does, you can find the MVNO’s coverage map online to see if you’ll have 5G service in your area.

Upgrading to a 5G Phone

In addition to coverage, your phone itself is important to consider when you’re thinking about switching to 5G. In fact, having to upgrade your phone is likely where most of your cost will come, as 5G is included for free on many cell phone plans now.

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To see exactly how much you can expect to pay for a 5G-compatible phone, I looked at the best used, refurbished and new prices available on popular unlocked phones. The following prices are accurate as of March 2022. 

Device5G CapabilityUsed PriceRefurbished PriceNew Price
Samsung Galaxy S22Yes$629-$849.99
iPhone 13Yes$669-$829
Google Pixel 5a 5GYes$374-$449
iPhone 12Yes$473$569.05$729
Samsung Galaxy S20 5GYes$354$484-
iPhone 11No$288$384.99$499
Moto G PowerNo$94$129.99$179.99
Samsung Galaxy S10No$188$229.69-

The Samsung Galaxy S22 and the iPhone 13 are two of the newest 5G-capable devices on the market. Clearly, they’re a little pricier than older 5G-capable phones like the Google Pixel 5a 5G, iPhone 12 and Samsung Galaxy S20 5G. 

Still, opting for an older used or refurbished phone that isn’t 5G compatible will result in the most savings. These phones will still provide access to reliable 4G/LTE service across the country. 

If you do want to get your hands on a new phone, you can find a new iPhone 11 or Moto G Power for a great price, especially compared to 5G phones. The exception is the Google Pixel 5a 5G, which actually has a lower price than a new iPhone 11. If you do want a brand new 5G-compatible phone, the Google Pixel 5a 5G offers the best price.

Is 5G Worth It?

Once you begin to understand what 5G is and learn how widely-available the coverage is in your area, the important question becomes whether or not 5G is worth it.

Since one of the biggest benefits of 5G is faster download speeds, I wanted to see exactly how great that benefit is. Will the difference in speeds be noticeably better? To find out, I consulted another recent study published by Ookla

Ookla, founder of SpeedTest.net, tested 5G speeds on popular Android and iPhone devices throughout the third quarter of 2021. The results revealed that the most popular 4G devices in the U.S. were about half as fast for median download speed as the most popular 5G-capable devices. 

As far as Apple devices go, the iPhone 13’s download speeds proved to be nearly three times as fast as the non-5G iPhone 11. 

The study concludes that increased speed is definitely one of the benefits of upgrading your 4G phone to a 5G-capable device. You can read the full study here.

Of course, the increased speeds will be a benefit only if you have access to 5G coverage in your area. If you use T-Mobile or a 5G-inclusive plan on one of T-Mobile’s MVNOs, you’re more likely to have access to 5G service in your area. You can check out Ookla’s 5G map where 5G rollouts are tracked in cities across the globe; it’s updated weekly.

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Whether you prefer T-Mobile, Verizon or AT&T, it’s important to enter your exact location on the service provider’s coverage map first to make sure you’ll have access to 5G. When considering whether or not 5G is worth it to you, knowing if you’ll have access to the network at home is one of the most important deciding factors.

No matter which service provider you use, your phone plan likely already includes free access to 5G. That means you may not have to pay any additional fees to upgrade or switch your plan. You can check your plan details online to see if 5G is included or not. Of the phone service providers I’ve tested out myself, Consumer Cellular is the only one I’ve found that hasn’t included 5G.

Finally, it’s important to consider the cost of a phone with 5G capability. If your current phone isn’t 5G-compatible, you will have to get a new one. 

Based on the prices of popular devices as of March 2022, new 5G phones cost $375 more on average than new phones that aren’t 5G-compatible. Even if you shop for a pre-owned device, 5G phones will still cost $310 more on average. 

So, is 5G worth it? Unfortunately, the answer, at least for right now, is: It depends. If you need faster speeds, live in an area with 5G coverage and use a phone service provider that runs on T-Mobile or Verizon towers, upgrading to a 5G phone could be worth it for you. Plus, as 5G continues to expand, coverage and download speeds will only improve.

However, if you’re content with 4G/LTE download speeds, live in a rural area or prefer AT&T’s cell phone service, you could save a lot of money by sticking with your current phone or upgrading to one that isn’t 5G-compatible

As long as your phone supports 4G, you have nothing to worry about and there’s no immediate need to upgrade. However, if your phone supports only 3G service, you’ll need to upgrade sooner rather than later. If this is the case for you, it’s important to consider whether the difference in cost for a 5G phone will make sense for you based on coverage in your area and your preferred service provider. 

Final Thoughts

If you’re weighing the pros and cons of upgrading to 5G, you aren’t alone. The 3G network has already begun shutting down, which is forcing many people to upgrade their phones. So should you go ahead and upgrade to 5G while you’re at it?

Here are a few questions to ask yourself to help determine whether or not 5G is worth it:

  • Do you need faster speeds than 4G/LTE? 4G is more readily available across the country than 5G currently, and it won’t be going away anytime soon. If 4G download speeds are fast enough for your wireless needs, you may not need to upgrade to 5G.
  • Do you have 5G coverage in your area? You can check the coverage map of any cell phone service provider online to see if you’ll have access to 5G in your area. If 5G isn’t in your area yet, there’s no immediate need to upgrade.
  • Is your current phone 5G-compatible, or are you willing to spend more money on a new phone? If your current phone is 5G-compatible, you likely won’t have to upgrade anything to get access to the faster service where it’s available. If your phone isn’t 5G-compatible, you’ll have to get a new one. Unfortunately, 5G phones are significantly more expensive on average than other phones. 

If you answered “yes” to all of these questions, it’s likely worth upgrading to 5G. However, if 4G speeds will suffice, if you don’t have 5G service in your area yet or if you’re hoping to save on your next phone upgrade, there’s no immediate need to pay extra for 5G access.

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