Will 5G be obsolete before its rolled out?
Yet another study shows U.S. 5G over promises, under delivers
from the unwarranted-hype dept
It was the technology that was supposed to change the world. According to carriers, not only was fifth-generation wireless (5G) supposed to bring about the "fourth industrial revolution," it was supposed to revolutionize everything from smart cities to cancer treatment. According to conspiracy theorists and internet imbeciles, 5G is responsible for everything from Covid-19 to your migraines.
Unfortunately for both sets of folks, data continues to indicate that 5G is nowhere near that interesting.
A number of recent studies have already shown that U.S. wireless isn't just the most expensive in the developed world, U.S. 5G is notably slower than most overseas deployments. That's thanks in large part to our failure to make so-called middle band spectrum available for public use, resulting in a heavy smattering of lower band spectrum (good signal reach but slow speeds) or high-band and millimeter wave spectrum (great speeds, but poor reach and poor reception indoors). The end result is a far cry from what carriers had spent the last three years promising.
PC Magazine was the latest to put carrier promises to the test and came away decidedly unimpressed. Networks certainly are getting faster, the report concludes, but it's largely due to steady evolutionary improvements being made to 4G networks, not newer 5G networks. As such, PC Magazine is forced to admit they bought into early carrier hype promising an amazing revolution:
"We admit it, we bought into the 5G hype. Carriers, phone makers, and chip makers alike have all been selling 5G as faster and more powerful than 4G, with lower latency. So I was shocked to see that our AT&T 5G results, especially, were slower than 4G results on the same network. This is a crisis for marketing, not for performance. All three US carriers showed significantly higher download speeds and better broadband reliability than they did in our 2019 tests. It's just that these gains, particularly on AT&T, are largely because of improvements in 4G, not 5G networks."
Wireless carriers haven't given much thought to the perils of over-hyping 5G, thereby associating the standard with empty bluster and frustration in the minds of consumers. You'll recall that AT&T has lied repeatedly in trying to pretend that 4G is 5G via misleading phone icons, and Verizon perpetually enjoyed hyping 5G market launches, only to have those looking for an actual 5G signal find that availability is these markets is spotty... at best (one study found that a Verizon 5G signal was available around 0.4% of the time in launched 5G markets).
Not too surprisingly then, PC Magazine routinely found it difficult to actually obtain a 5G signal:
"It's been more than a year since the US carriers launched 5G. AT&T purports to have 5G in 22 of our 26 test cities; Verizon has it in 18; and T-Mobile has it in all of them. But our 5G results were disappointing all around, on every carrier. Often, it was a choice between faux G (we’ll explain this shortly) and no G...most of our current 5G coverage offers people a slightly improved 4G experience dressed up with a shiny new icon. That’s not bad, but to live up to their lofty promises about how 5G will change education, medicine, industry, and home internet, the carriers will need to use more spectrum and better technology than they’re currently giving us.
It's also worth noting that despite all the promises surrounding the T-Mobile and Sprint merger, the initial result has been slower speeds overall as the companies work to integrate discordant networks:
"So far, T-Mobile's absorption of Sprint hasn't shown much advantage for consumers. It's to the contrary, really: In our results, it looks like the rush of Sprint users onto T-Mobile's network has created some congestion that has caused T-Mobile to fall behind in comparative performance. All of the carriers' speeds increased from 2019 to 2020, but T-Mobile's increased less than AT&T's and Verizon's did."
PC Mag's study was mirrored this week by a Washington Post investigation that basically concluded all the same things. Namely that 5G isn't much to write home about, and in many instances U.S. 4G networks outperform 5G in 5G launch markets:
"Your experience with a 5G phone in 2020 is likely to be all over the map. I got searing fast 750 Mbps downloads from AT&T in one corner of downtown. But in the same spot, my 4G phone got an also extremely fast 330 Mbps. Moreover, because of the pandemic, those aren’t places I go very often. As I write this from my home office in the middle of San Francisco, I’m getting 11 Mbps downloads on my AT&T 5G phone. On T-Mobile, I get a laughable 8 Mbps on 5G, which is barely enough to stream HD Netflix."
I regret to inform you that despite a lot of tech policy bluster and carrier marketing, we are most assuredly not winning the "race to 5G." In fact, our broadband maps are so routinely terrible, I'm not sure we'd be able to confirm it if we were.
Again, 5G will certainly offer faster speeds, lower latency, and more reliable networks over the long haul, especially as carriers push new middle band spectrum to market. Even then, don't expect 5G pricing to be particularly innovative thanks to the death of net neutrality and reduced competition due to consolidation. Carriers are also lobbying the FCC to exclude 5G from broadband mapping improvements (meaning don't expect an accurate read on where it's truly available any time soon). The more things change...
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