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The state of 5G: Hype versus reality two years later
5G networks have been up and running around the world since early 2019, at least in some markets. The rollout so far is touted to be much faster than 4G LTE, with broader coverage, a wide range of carriers, and a plethora of 5G smartphones and other devices to pick from compared to the same point on 4G’s deployment.
That sounds like great news for the wireless networking industry’s big players, but what about us consumers? 5G promised us not only faster data speeds for streaming content but also brand new products and never-before-seen use cases based on the benefits of 5G.
Has 5G technology lived up to the hype so far? Let’s look at the evidence.
5G vs 4G data speeds
Faster data is the primary promise of 5G, touted by carriers all around the world. The benefits include streaming high-quality video on the go, low latency gaming, and better bandwidth in densely populated areas. But are consumers really feeling the benefits of faster 5G data speeds?
OpenSignals’ January 2021 Download Speed Experience for the US clocks typical download speeds of 33.2Mbps at AT&T, 28.8Mbps for T-Mobile, and 28.9Mbps for Verizon. These results measure the average download speeds experienced by OpenSignal users across a carrier’s entire network, so this includes 4G and 5G as users move in and out of coverage.
Looking back at a similar January 2019 report, these carriers scored speeds of 17.8Mbps, 21.1Mbps, and 20.9Mbps, respectively. This is a 4G only measurement, as these carriers had not launched their commercial 5G networks at the time. Over the past two years, US carriers have improved their typical data speeds by 7.7Mbps to 15.4Mbps, at least according to OpenSignal. Hardly the speed revolution that carriers promised with all the talk about gigabit capabilities. This is especially disappointing given that leading countries such as South Korea offered 40Mbps+ data speeds on their 4G LTE networks all the way back in 2019.
Over the past two years, typical speeds at US carriers have improved by 7.7Mbps to 15.4Mbps. Hardly a 5G revolution.
OpenSignal has also published a 5G-only look at US carriers for January 2021. This report finds faster typical data speeds clocking in at 53.8, 58.1, and 47.4Mbps from the big three when customers are connected to 5G. That’s fast, but still well shy of the 100Mbps+ speeds often used to showcase 5G’s potential. The key problem is that 5G just isn’t available most of the time. OpenSignal’s time connected to 5G score measures just 18.8% at AT&T, 30.1% for T-Mobile customers, and a measly 9.5% for Verizon.
It’s a similar picture when turning to the global state of 2021’s wireless networks. OpenSignal’s March 2021 report finds a wide disparity between the fastest and average global network speeds. South Korea’s SK Telecom tops the leaderboard with 74.9Mbps typical download speeds — 3.2x the global average of 23.6Mbps. The top 10 places are made up entirely of carriers from South Korea, Canada, The Netherlands, and Singapore, indicating that 5G experiences vary widely from country to country.
Although it’s been two-plus years since the arrival of 5G technology on networks, most countries are still technically in the early stages of deployment. Availability is currently limited to more populous cities and even then sometimes just in certain areas or blocks. Hence why the amount of time actually spent using a 5G connection remains low and so do the typical speeds. Unfortunately, we’re still years away from 5G becoming the dominant network technology when the switch to 5G Standalone becomes viable.
mmWave and sub-6GHz
For the uninitiated, 5G technologies can be a little bit confusing. The specification is split into three key frequency groups: very high and fast mmWave spectrum, sub-6GHz spectrum to expand speed and capacity similar to existing 4G frequencies, and repurposed low-band frequencies for long-range coverage. The big vision for 5G encompasses all three spectrum groups working in tandem, combining their strengths and smoothing over their weaknesses. Spectrum auctions around the world have all been a little bit different but have predominantly focused on the low-band and sub-6GHz frequencies so far. mmWave licensing has typically been slower, particularly in Europe. As such, the bulk of the world’s 5G networks are based on sub-6Ghz and low-band, with scatterings of mmWave in regions that are further along with their spectrum actions and deployment roadmaps.
Despite its much faster peak speed capabilities, mmWave technology is only available in a comparatively small number of areas. Coverage is mmWave’s biggest issue. OpenSignal’s April 2021 mmWave report found that US consumers spend less than 1% of their time connected to a 5G mmWave network. While the technology is gaining some traction for fixed wireless access, sub-6GHz is the technology that the vast majority of mobile 5G consumers are actually using.
Furthermore, smartphones can also be split into camps that only support sub-6GHz and those that support mmWave. mmWave is currently reserved for the expensive flagship tier of the market or more expensive variants of mid-range devices. That means only a smaller cross-section of consumers can make the most of the fastest 5G technology currently available. Spotty coverage and a variety of handset capabilities partly explain why some 5G networks have not (yet) lived up to much of the marketing hype.
AR, VR, and other 5G moonshots
If 5G speeds have so far failed to live up to the hype, there sadly also few signs of life in the various moonshot ideas repeatedly trotted out to justify the industry overhauls required for next-gen networks.
Speaking at CES 2019, Cristiano Amon, president of Qualcomm, stated: “5G will pave the way for next-generation immersive experiences, including near-instant access to cloud services, multiplayer virtual reality gaming, shopping with augmented reality and real-time video collaboration.” Build it and the use cases will come has been the mentality.
Cue the crickets. Consumers are still waiting for anything close to these experiences to actually land on the market. So far, there’s nothing 5G can do that 4G or fiber broadband can’t.
The moonshot ideas used to justify industry overhauls for next-gen networks have so far been lacking.
Mass Internet of Things (IoT), smart cities, autonomous vehicle networks, and zanier concoctions like remote surgery have, so far, remained firmly in the realm of ideas. Even mixed and augmented reality industries, which have had seen isolated success stories, are still waiting for their breakout 5G use case. Perhaps it wasn’t so wise to market 5G alongside so many unproven markets. Even initiatives that should benefit from basic faster data speeds and lower latency, such as cloud gaming initiatives like Google Stadia, have failed to make a dent in traditional markets.
Of course, the problem could be that 5G networks simply aren’t ubiquitous enough yet to make these ideas feasible. It’s possible that we’ll see 5G-exclusive use cases appear in the coming years, most likely in the industrial sectors to start with. But so far the radical innovation heralded by Qualcomm, Huawei, T-Mobile, and others has failed to materialize.
5G phones are everywhere, at least
At least one prediction made in the early days of 5G has come true: it’s increasingly difficult to buy a 4G-only handset in 2021. At least that’s true in Western markets. 4G handsets are still somewhat popular in more affordable Asian markets that are yet to roll out 5G.
Elsewhere, few could have predicted just how affordable 5G smartphones would become in just two short years. Granted, the first flagships with optional external modems were very expensive, pushing industry prices consistently north of $1,000.
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However, integrated 5G chipsets arrived in upper mid-range smartphones in 2020 and are on their way to highly affordable handsets in 2021. Reasonably priced 5G flagship phones cost $799 for the Samsung Galaxy S21 and $699 for Google’s Pixel 5. At the more affordable end of the market, the Samsung’s Galaxy A32 5G and OnePlus Nord N10 both support 5G speeds for less than $300.
Even though the rollout of 5G may still be in its infancy, millions of consumers who have bought handsets in the past couple of years are already futureproofed. As 5G capabilities quickly move down to more affordable price brackets, millions more consumers will be ready when the 5G switch flicks on in their local area.
The state of 5G technology: Much more to be done
Of course, two years is not a particularly long time in the grand scheme of entirely new networking technology. We are still in the early stages of 5G’s rollout, even in now seemingly well-established markets like the US. It will take at least a couple more years until 5G connections are available in smaller towns and rural locations. Around the world, some countries are still dividing up and auctioning 5G spectrum. It may take a while longer to reach the level of deployment required for new use cases to emerge.
5G is fast on paper but consumers aren't always seeing the benefits in the real world.
Expectation management with 5G has been poor from both carriers and tech companies. Data shows that real-world data speeds and availability have failed to live up to the lofty promises, particularly those touted by mmWave technology. Building hype with unproven ideas and new business suggestions is also bound to leave consumers and industry disappointed when they fail to materialize.
Has 5G lived up to the hype?
That said, there is still cause to be optimistic about 5G’s possibilities in the coming years. 5G Standalone will be possible once wider rollouts are achieved. In comparison to today’s Non-Standalone networks, 5G Standalone is able to deliver the network slicing, low latency, flexible subscription models, and dynamic creation of services for smart cities, mass IoT, automotive, and other use cases.
For now though, the high expectations set up at the launch of 5G networks two-plus years ago remain at least a few more years away.