When it launches, the Google Pixel 5 will cost $699 in the United States — easily making it the most expensive Snapdragon 765 device on the market globally. For comparison, OnePlus's Nord costs around $470 in Europe, while the US-sold LG Velvet retails for $600. Both phones have larger screens, more cameras, in-screen fingerprint scanners, and still support the actually-usable sub-6GHz 5G being deployed globally. And I think that pretty much tells us what we need to know about why the Pixel 5 is commanding such a premium — mmWave 5G no one asked for or needs.
Only the American Pixel 5 will ship with the antenna modules required for compatibility with mmWave 5G networks, and those antenna modules are expensive. A smartphone needs at least two, and generally three, mmWave modules in order to ensure those ultra-tiny 5G waves aren't blocked by an errant hand, and Qualcomm is currently the sole supplier of them globally.
An industry analyst I spoke to earlier this year estimated that the per-module cost currently stood in the $30-40 range, meaning that a phone could cost $60-120 more to build all for the sake of adding mmWave 5G. Of course, Qualcomm is likely starting to lower its prices to encourage adoption, and those figures may no longer be accurate. But I have no reason to believe Qualcomm is now suddenly giving these things away — we have ample data points showing mmWave phones are simply more expensive than their sub-6GHz only counterparts. That's not in dispute by any seriously informed person in this industry.
Google claims that its carrier partners all want next-generation smartphones to support mmWave 5G.
What is disputable is the reasoning for their inclusion, and I take real issue with Google's decision here. Speaking to the Pixel team on a virtual Q&A after today's press conference, I asked about the logic behind adding an expensive, largely useless technology on the unlocked version of the Pixel 5. The answer I received wasn't very pleasing, but it was illuminating: carriers.
Google claims that its carrier partners all want next-generation smartphones to support mmWave 5G. That may sound as obvious as it does unsatisfying, but I truly don't buy it. Both AT&T and T-Mobile have slowed rollouts of their mmWave 5G networks to an absolute crawl. AT&T only advertises mmWave as part of its 5G business offerings, and tends to only build out where known corporate customer demand exists. There is no meaningful consumer marketing of mmWave at AT&T. Similarly, while T-Mobile does have a mmWave network it touts as part of its "layer cake" 5G strategy, no one believes it plans a mass rollout of the technology imminently (funnily enough, the Pixel 5 won't even support T-Mobile mmWave at launch). Instead, T-Mobile will focus on its mid-band holdings, which offer a sizable chunk of the real world speeds of mmWave at a far, far greater range. Oh, and T-Mobile won't even stock the Pixel 5, mmWave regardless. Real good job on the 5G upsell there, Google.
The math here is not difficult to understand, and only someone arguing in bad faith would not conclude that mmWave has substantially contributed to a higher retail price for Pixel 5.
That leaves us with Verizon, which has been selling exclusive mmWave-enabled versions of its own phones at a substantial premium, as mmWave is the only 5G network technology Verizon has yet deployed. Verizon will be selling the Pixel 5 directly, but curiously, it costs no more than the unlocked version of the phone. And yet, the Pixel 4a 5G, which Verizon will also sell — in an exclusive mmWave "UW" model — will cost $100 more than its non-mmWave unlocked counterpart, at $600. The math here is not difficult to understand, and only someone arguing in bad faith would fail to conclude that mmWave has substantially contributed to a higher retail price for Pixel 5. It's inescapable.
Google's effort to defend the mmWave decision lies in use cases like its Stadia game streaming service or Google Duo video calls, applications which tend to be demanding on bandwidth and latency. And sure, that's absolutely true — they are! The problem is that the United States currently has negligible mmWave coverage at all, outside a select few metros where Verizon has more aggressively deployed access points. Additionally, there is essentially no mmWave 5G coverage that is usable indoors right now, and likely won't be for a long time — most of those deployments are planned for or already in places like sports arenas and concert venues. And when exactly will we be returning en masse to those?
In the end, Google was pressured by operators to add an expensive feature to its smartphone it doesn't actually need.
Even with the outdoor mmWave coverage that currently exists, what exactly is the realistic use case here? You're going to walk to a specific street corner or park to... take a video call with a better connection? You're going to stream video games in direct sunlight, all but guaranteeing your phone will almost immediately overheat? This is silly — these aren't real things people will do just to ensure mmWave coverage, and anyone earnestly arguing otherwise is just parroting the 5G marketing drivel Verizon and the like have been spewing for the past year. And that's to say nothing of the fact that T-Mobile's mid-band 5G would work just as well, and likely in reality better due to its coverage, in these already fairly fanciful scenarios. You're telling me you need multi-gigabit mmWave for Zoom? Come on.
In the end, Google was pressured by operators to add an expensive feature to its smartphone it doesn't actually need. And even if one day mmWave 5G is truly necessary tech in a smartphone for the masses, that day will come long after your Pixel 5 heads to a local Goodwill or your friendly neighborhood eWaste facility. The future-proofing argument is legitimate nonsense. If we want to come back down to reality, I've got an unpleasant slice of it for you: AT&T and Verizon will gobble up hundreds of megahertz of actually useful new 5G mid-band spectrum this winter, and guess what? Your Pixel 5 won't ever support any of it. Positioning mmWave as some kind of 5G consolation prize is a bad, misguided move. Google should have known better.