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With global smartphone makers such as Apple, Samsung, LG and others rolling out their first 5G phones this year, many Canadians will be considering an upgrade to the latest tech during the peak selling season between now and Boxing Day.

But with 5G phones retailing for hundreds of dollars more than their 4G competitors, consumers will likely want to know what they’re getting for their money. Is it worth being an early 5G adopter? Or is it more prudent to wait for 5G networks and software offerings to mature and better showcase the new generation’s capabilities?

Sascha Segan, lead analyst at PCMag.com, says the latest crop of 4G phones will be a more practical choice than 5G for Canadians overall, with a few exceptions.

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But Segan, who heads PCMag’s annual review of Canadian mobile networks, says a lot depends on exactly where the phones are used.

“Because every city has its own quirks and its own trends in performance,” he says.

In addition, wireless data speeds are dramatically lower in rural areas of Canada than in more densely populated areas – a well-known problem that’s not unique to Canada.

But even if somebody chooses to buy a 4G phone, often labelled an LTE or LTE Advance phone, Segan says new hardware could well be an improvement over what they’ve got now.

“That’s because, every year, the radios in the phones get better and they’re able to access more of the channels (that) the carriers are using,” Segan says.

“If you have a three- or four-year-old phone, just getting one of the latest models will be a huge jump in network performance for you.”

So, for the budget conscious buyer, the question becomes a balancing act between price and performance and personal priorities.

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PCMag’s 2020 report on Canadian mobile networks, based on results gathered from 20 cities and a few rural areas from Sept. 14 to Oct. 15, found Bell’s 5G network came out on top in 12 cities and tied for top spot with Telus in two cities including Toronto.

Telus took top spot in four cities while Saskatchewan Telecommunications Holding Corp. and Rogers were each No. 1 in one city.

PCMag says Rogers – which had its 5G network going a few months earlier than its two main rivals and says it still covers more locations – didn’t fare as well on its tests because the phone it recommended couldn’t make full use of the network’s capabilities.

“Rogers is using some technologies that phones won’t support until next year,” Segan says.

None of the Canadian carriers will offer full 5G capability until the federal government auctions more licences for specific bands of radio frequencies, particularly 3,500 megahertz (midband) and millimetre wave (high-band) spectrum.

The major regional carriers – privately owned Eastlink, Quebecor’s Videotron, and Shaw’s Freedom for the most part – don’t have as much of their 5G network in place as Bell, Telus and Rogers do.

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In fact, executives from Shaw and Videotron told analysts on recent quarterly conference calls that they don’t see a compelling use for 5G phones yet – even though they see longer-term potential for the network upgrades they’re going to be putting in place.

“While the industry is talking up 5G, I think, in a quite sensible way right now, there isn’t really a compelling use case,” Shaw president Paul McAleese said Oct. 30.

Jean-Francois Pruneau, president and CEO of Videotron Ltd., said on Nov. 5 that it’s still “very hard” to find ways to make money from fifth-generation wireless networks:

“We’re going to have to see some more user case on the residential front or on the business front, to be able to see real true monetization plans from us and from all players around the planet,” Pruneau said.

Segan has a similar opinion and notes that Canada’s fourth-generation networks continue to do better on speed tests than 5G networks in other countries, including the United States.

“There’s nothing about Canadian 5G, right now, that the carriers couldn’t be doing with 4G if they wanted to,” Segan writes.

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