The launch of the iPhone 12 has focused our collective attention on “5G,” a collection of fifth-generation wireless technologies that will supersede the fourth generation (4G) wireless — including Long Term Evolution (LTE). The new 5G is supposed to be faster — so fast that people talk as if it might be magical.
I usually turn to network quality monitoring services such as OpenSignal and Ookla test results and data to gauge network performance. But, given the lack of 5G devices (and realizing that this might change in time), I am cautious in believing what they say at present. So, I started to dig in, just to educate myself about the market. I wondered: How real is 5G in the US? Is it worth the money?
My simple finding is that, as it stands today, in the US, it is decidedly not magical — though, it does involve a bit of hocus pocus. You might be promised gigabit speeds, but what you get will be much slower, especially in the near term. In order to understand, why, let’s look at what is on offer. In the US, what is being packaged, labeled, and sold to consumers as 5G is made up of three different wireless technologies:
- Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) that allows wireless carriers to push 5G signals into the 4G “low band” spectrum. T-Mobile, for instance, uses 600 MHz spectrum, while Verizon is pushing its signals in the 850 MHz spectrum. [You can learn how DSS works on the 5G website.]
- Mobile 5G broadband is available on the mid-band spectrum between 2.5 GHz and 6 GHz and is known as the sub-6 GHz spectrum. T-Mobile (which also owns Sprint) has a big chunk of this spectrum in the 2.5 GHz range. [As an aside, 2.5 to 3.5 GHz was the spectrum that was slotted for WiMAX and mocked by AT&T and Verizon. Looks like T-Mobile and Sprint have the last laugh.]
- High-band 5G broadband, also known as Millimeter Wave and operates above the 24 GHz band, which will soon include the 60 GHz. Verizon calls this “Ultra-Wideband,” and this is what Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg waxed eloquent in his most awkward appearance at the Apple iPhone 12 launch. For some of us who have tracked the broadband industry for a few decades, this spectrum was called Fixed Wireless.
At present most of them are imperfect, especially the DSS and high-band technologies. Those who work in the network business are quite aware of the limitations of DSS. Take, for example, the Japanese telecom provider, NTT DoCoMo. This is what they had to say:
“When DSS is employed, the network speed will be limited to a level comparable to LTE, meaning that we may not be able to fully deliver the speeds promised by 5G. If we use the same spectrum band as LTE for 5G when there are still many users on the LTE network, it will result in 5G burdening the LTE capacity. For this reason, we plan to roll out our 5G network as quickly as possible using the sub-6GHz spectrum instead of using DSS. It is very important to have customers understand that this is the authentic approach to building 5G.”
Clearly, DSS is not without problems. There are latency challenges, especially in real-world situations. It also has interference issues. And it is not clear how these technical challenges are being overcome. Such problems were part of the 4G rollout and took some years to solve. So, it would be foolish to assume that DSS will be any different.
Still, DSS is a sneaky way for all three carriers to show the 5G icon on the phone and make you feel like you might have better wireless than LTE. AT&T and Verizon are using this cheap trick. Think of this as the Borat of 5G (except not as quick and not as good). In some places, you could see better speeds — 70 to 80 Mbps on DSS (5G) versus the 20 to 30 Mbps one finds on LTE — but don’t count on it. As one analyst told me, “It’s mostly a gimmick because it doesn’t give you the throughput advantages.”
This is coming from the horse’s mouth. “The experience [between 4G and nationwide 5G] is similar. It’s not radically different,” Verizon VP Bill Stone told Light Reading. The so-called ultra-wideband network that Vestberg boasted about is available in 55 cities. Even when it is available, it is pretty spotty. You can’t really make it work indoors as effectively. You can’t be moving around. This technology is impacted by things like line of sight, foliage, and how far you are from the cell-site.
Many companies used this spectrum for backhaul connectivity and connected cell towers to the central offices. It is based on the spectrum Verizon acquired due to buying XO Communications, Straight Path, and Nextlink. Verizon started building its Verizon Ultra Wideband network in 2018. Even if all goes to plan, a mere 2 million people will have access to it by the end of 2020.
If you think Verizon 5G feels slow and terrible, wait till you learn about AT&T, which is essentially a rebranded 4G as 5G, because all they are doing is using the “DSS” technology. The company bought FiberTower in 2017, and that got the company 39 GHz and since then has acquired 37 GHz and 47 GHz bands, so this gives the company some room to play in the mmWave 5G. However, this is in limited availability and suffers from the same challenges as Verizon.
In comparison, T-Mobile has usable 5G, though it is hard to tell how good. The company has between 30 percent to 40 percent of significant US cities covered with mid-band, according to Chetan Sharma of Chetan Sharma Consulting, a mobile industry consulting group.
The company says that it can offer 25 million people speeds of 100 to 300 Mbps using its 2.5 GHz network. It will hit the 100 million people goal by the end of 2020. It is also starting to lease more spectrum in low-band, which allows it to offer better speeds. Of all the companies, it seems T-Mobile has the cleanest plans to build a real, usable, and mobile 5G network. It is about 25 percent cheaper than AT&T and Verizon, so there is that to think about.
It makes you wonder why Apple decided to go with Verizon, risk its reputation, and instead of working with a carrier that actually has what seems like a 5G network. I wonder how much Verizon paid Apple for that CEO placement?
With all this in mind, the next obvious question: What do reviewers say about the 5G network. Well, read for yourself.
- “The iPhone 12, the first with 5G, is indeed the fastest 5G smartphone,” wrote Joanna Stern of the Wall Street Journal. “To see those speeds, you need to move really, really slowly. After locating your carrier’s high-speed tower, stand right next to it, tap download, then freeze. It’s best to think of 5G as an invisible feature — something that might one day come in handy.”
- “Verizon’s Sub-6 ‘nationwide’ 5G is basically fine. It’s there, and it was reasonably fast, although my iPhone 11 Pro on AT&T LTE could produce equivalent speeds in many cases,” Nilay Patel wrote in The Verge. However, he did get 2 gigabits per second on Verizon’s mmWave connection when next to a tower. It also drained the battery faster.
- “mmWave coverage zones really are like Wi-Fi hotspots in terms of range. At some spots, the coverage is literally just half a city block,” noted John Gruber. “I can’t speak to Verizon’s regular 5G service because I never encountered it.”
- “The biggest selling point Apple is pushing for the new ones is that they connect to the new, supposedly faster 5G wireless standard,” USA Today notes. “But current 5G is spotty (Verizon) or not currently much faster than 4G (AT&T and T-Mobile.)”
Not many reviewers have gone deep into this, but supporting multiple wireless bands and constant switching between various frequencies will tax the device and drain the batteries faster. It is significantly worse for devices at the higher end of the spectrum. According to some estimates, even with bigger batteries, there is a significant decline in battery performance. [Interestingly, Samsung, on its website, admits the 5G battery problem: “You may notice that your phone’s battery drains faster than usual while you are connected to a 5G network. This is a limitation of the current 5G networks and will be improved as the networks expand.”]
I had long suspected that the 5G in the US is a laggard. The fact is that the iPhone 12 (5G) is more attractive and useful for those who reside in South Korea, Japan, and China. Those countries are further advanced when it comes to 5G deployment. Though, not by much. Dave Burstein, a dear friend who covers wireless as an independent analyst and writer, points out that even China — with about 675,000 base stations — isn’t that advanced. Given that China has many more subscribers than the US, it might be easier for Apple to find growth and revenues there. It didn’t really have much of a choice — demand for 5G handsets in those countries is off the charts, and Apple needs to tick the feature boxes.
It is not smooth sailing for 5G in China either. A Huawei executive was brutal in his Chinese 5G assessments: “To put it in three simple words, it’s fake, dumb, and poor,” he said. I am guessing that it is about the DSS-based 5G. China launched 5G a year ago, and consumers in China are complaining too about low network quality and network speeds. According to estimates, China needs to build a cellular base station every 200 to 300 meters and need 10 million base stations to offer a good network. Government officials believe that China needs to add a million 5G base stations a year to offer decent service.
In South Korea, where Samsung is king, people are actually enjoying real 5G — 600 Mbps with 25 percent of wireless users on 5G. I suppose it will be a while before we start to see those numbers in the US (or elsewhere on the planet).
Apple does risk blowback due to low network quality and battery issues. I remember when the original iPhone launched, many people complained about the network. Back then, it was easy to blame AT&T because the iPhone was so new. Unfortunately, as an incumbent, Apple might not have that luxury anymore.
So, what about me? I am going to wait a bit for the new phone. I am not going anywhere. I’m working from home of a gigabit/second fiber connection, I have plenty of speed in both directions. And by the time we return to work and traveling, 5G will be good enough to be usable. I will let my friend Burstein have the final word. In an email, he wrote, “Don’t believe the hype. 5G (other than the very rare mmWave) is only a modest upgrade of 4G.”