The price of nationwide 5G in the US is that we may have the slowest 5G network in the world.
Millions of people are experiencing 5G for the first time this month. And I imagine they’re asking: is that all there is? 5G hit a new level of success in the US in October with the launch of the first 5G iPhones and Verizon’s “nationwide” 5G. But the vast majority of Americans are currently getting a 4G-like, slow 5G experience that doesn’t reflect the lofty promises we’ve been hearing for the past few years.
On our Race to 5G tracker, all of the carriers have now maxed out their scores for 5G coverage and devices. Verizon says it covers more than 200 million people with its new nationwide 5G, launched mid-month. AT&T and T-Mobile both say they cover even more with their existing nationwide 5G systems.
Some new players have entered the 5G realm this month. Cable companies Comcast and Charter, which use Verizon’s network, now offer service on Verizon’s nationwide 5G. Small carrier C Spire launched its own 5G network in Mississippi this month as well.
In terms of devices, they’re coming thick and fast now. Very few new phones in the US are 4G-only. New 5G devices this month included the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro; the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE 5G; the OnePlus 8T; Google Pixel 5; Google Pixel 4a 5G; T-Mobile Revvl 5G; and TCL 10 5G YOUR. Those last two are especially notable because they’re $400, a newly affordable price point for 5G phones in the US.
But according to a 14-country study by Open Signal, we have the world’s slowest 5G—slower than the 4G in both Canada and South Korea. According to Ookla Speedtest Intelligence, most people who are loading up their hot 5G devices in the US right now are doing so at speeds under 100Mbps on AT&T and T-Mobile, and now averaging 144Mbps on Verizon—speeds that I would have previously called thoroughly 4G experiences.
T-Mobile has the best chance, right now, to get past that. This month the carrier said it was dramatically expanding its mid-band 5G system, which in my tests in New York City has shown speeds of up to around 600Mbps. Even that system seems to fall short in the aggregate, though. Looking at Speedtest Intelligence results for Galaxy Note 20 Ultra devices in New York in October—mid-band capable phones in a mid-band city—T-Mobile averaged a mere 111.41Mbps down, which is better than its national average but still not what we were looking for from 5G.
The problem all three carriers are suffering from is a lack of airwaves suitable for true 5G experiences. The “nationwide” 5G systems are made by using 5G encodings on existing 4G channels, but if you don’t add genuinely new channels, then you aren’t really improving your speeds. All three carriers’ millimeter-wave systems (like Verizon’s 5G UW) are based on new channels and have great performance, but almost no coverage. T-Mobile has potential with its mid-band system, but that appears to be taking some time to build out properly.
So when’s it going to get better? This winter, the government is auctioning some suitable 5G airwaves called C-Band, which the new iPhones support. All the major carriers and Dish signed up to participate in the auction, and Samsung just announced hardware for the carriers to build their new C-Band networks. But because the airwaves are currently being used by satellite firms, they may not become usable until the end of 2021, which means we wouldn’t see high-quality nationwide 5G from AT&T or Verizon until 2022.
Facing this challenge, the carriers have just created a new industry body to come up with ideas for—wait for it—6G. You’d think they’d figure the current G out first? We’ll have more on the Race to 5G next month.
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5G, AT&T Mobility, Cellco Partnership, Inc., T-Mobile US, iPhone
World news – GB – Race to 5G: 5G Limps to Nationwide Status