Don’t get too hyped on 5G . . .
Apple on Tuesday announced that its new lineup of iPhones will support 5G networks. But while Apple — and special guest Hans Vestberg, CEO of Verizon — hyped the inclusion of fifth-generation wireless technology in its new handsets as a major game-changer, U.S. consumers expecting earth-shattering improvements in wireless connectivity may be left disappointed.
Wireless carriers have worked overtime to portray 5G as an incredible revolution in modern communications. Companies like Verizon have called the technology the “fourth industrial revolution,” claiming that the standard will usher forth everything from the smart cities of tomorrow to revolutionary cancer treatments.
In reality, consumers should think of 5G as more of a modest evolution than a radical revolution — and take this week’s marketing hype with a grain of salt or two.
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Under ideal circumstances, 5G can be incredibly fast. Data from wireless testing firm RootMetrics has recorded peak speeds as fast as 1 Gbps, far faster than 4G’s maximum speed of around 100 Mbps, and comparable to many fixed fiber broadband connections.
But so far, reality isn’t matching up to carrier hype, at least in the United States.
U.S. consumers already pay some of the highest prices in the developed world for mobile data. In exchange, Americans also see significantly slower 4G LTE speeds than consumers in a long line of other countries. So far, 5G isn’t changing either equation.
An August report by wireless testing firm OpenSignal found the United States ranked dead last in average download speeds in a 12 country survey. Additional research has found that in many locations, U.S. 5G isn’t providing much, if any, speed improvement over 4G.
PC Magazine recently drove around the country and found that AT&T’s mobile 5G network is actually slower than its 4G network in 21 out of 22 cities tested. A Washington Post columnist found the same thing, noting that in many cases U.S. 5G networks either weren’t available or didn’t perform notably better than their 4G counterparts.
Why? Unlike many countries, the U.S. hasn’t done a good job freeing a high-performance midband wireless spectrum for public use. As a result, U.S. carriers more frequently lean on low-band spectrum (great range, slower speeds), or high-band millimeter wave spectrum (great speeds, very poor range) for deployment.
5G also relies heavily on adequate fiber “backhaul” feeding local cell towers. If there’s not enough fiber in your neck of the woods, your overall wireless speeds could suffer. As the U.S. expands fiber deployment and the availability of midband spectrum improves (not expected for a few years), 5G will improve. But right now, it’s a far cry from its full potential.
Undaunted, much like 3G and 4G before it, wireless carriers have spent years overstating not only what 5G is capable of, but where it’s actually available. AT&T has taken to using misleading phone icons to pretend its existing 4G network is actually 5G, and Verizon has been repeatedly criticized for misleading advertising that dramatically overstates 5G availability.
In fact, one OpenSignal report found that even in “launched” Verizon 5G markets, users were only able to connect to a 5G signal about 0.4% of the time. Even in stadium launches, used by Verizon to market the wonders of 5G to NFL fans, coverage is routinely unavailable in the cheap seats.
Obviously, such limitations weren’t made clear at Apple’s press event, just as they weren’t at 5G phone launches for Google’s Pixel 5 launch or Samsung’s Galaxy S20 Plus. With smartphone sales plateauing in recent years, carriers and handset makers alike are desperate to frame 5G as something utterly revolutionary to spur consumer upgrades.
But if you can’t afford the latest and greatest 5G device, the data suggests you’re not missing much. U.S. 5G right now is relatively lacking, and while the technology may eventually deliver faster, more reliable networks across the United States, its full potential remains years away, giving ample time to save your pennies.