5G is coming, just not that fast

What business wouldn’t embrace the promise of faster connections to deliver enriched customer experiences anytime, anywhere? That’s what 5G promises . . . eventually.

A few weeks ago, I noticed that the signal strength indicator on my smartphone had switched from 4G to 5G networking. Judging by the narrative I’ve seen from telecom carriers for the last couple of years, this should have presaged a prodigious leap in performance.

In fact, nothing much has changed.

Search “why is 5G so slow?” on Google, and you’ll find that plenty of other people have had the same experience. The halting, uninspiring transition to 5G service that’s going on in the U.S. right now stands in contrast to the inflated expectations carriers have been hyping: A new age of transformed mobile experiences in gaming, video, and augmented/virtual reality, all enabled by 5G.

In reality, for people who don’t live in major metropolitan areas, the picture is unlikely to change very much for at least three to five years.

Carriers have good reason to sell 5G’s potential: They’ve spent billions of dollars to buy the necessary spectrum to deliver service. But they have also raised unrealistic expectations about how soon and how dramatic the payoff will be.

Three shades of 5G

It’s important to understand that there are actually three different types of 5G—low-band, mid-band, and high-band—that have vastly different performance profiles. Low-band networks ride on top of existing 4G LTE and are only marginally faster. In fact, some testers have found that they’re actually slower. The advantage of low-band is that it can cover a wide area and so requires fewer new cell towers to be built. When you see those big nationwide 5G coverage maps, know that most of that is low-band.

Mid-band networks offer a balance of performance and coverage that delivers a noticeable performance pop. However, not all carriers have licensed sufficient mid-band spectrum to reach a critical mass of customers. T-Mobile is considered to be ahead of the pack at the moment.

High-band millimeter wave (mmWave) 5G spectrum is what generates all the excitement. It’s in a stratospheric spectrum range that enables blistering speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second, making it a viable alternative to hard-wired networks and cable internet. High-band 5G signals can also be sliced into multiple virtualized and independent logical networks that support many users on the same signal.

But range is a problem. High-band services require antennae to be spaced as little as one-tenth of a mile from each other. Signals are also vulnerable to blockage by trees and walls. That means building out the necessary infrastructure in all but the densest urban areas of the U.S. is a long and complex process.

From sea to shining sea

Part of the problem is the sheer physical size of the territory to be covered. The decentralized nature of U.S. infrastructure also requires wireless carriers to negotiate antennae placement contracts with multiple utilities, municipal governments, and property owners. On top of that, content delivery networks must upgrade their infrastructure to handle increased volume and speed.

So don’t hold your breath waiting for high-speed 5G to come to your doorstep, at least not with the blazing performance you can rely on. Speedcheck.org currently ranks the U.S. 20th in 5G median speed, with South Korea outstripping our relatively pokey 48 megabits-per-second by nearly seven-to-one. Several European countries also boast medians that are more than twice as fast as those in the U.S.

The bottom line is that I expect public cellular data networks to use a combination of all three types of 5G bands, along with their 4G and 3G predecessors, for a long time to come. You may get a performance boost when you enter the limits of a big city, but it will drop off when you leave.

Private network potential

The more interesting potential could be behind the firewall. Because of high-band 5G’s limited range, private entities like colleges and stadium owners can use the spectrum to deliver services in a defined area. The owner of a football stadium, for example, could provide custom video feeds to fans in the seats without ever tying into a carrier network. When combined with the Wi-Fi 6 standard that is making its way into the market right now, that could set up some interesting use cases that bypass the telcos entirely.

This doesn’t mean you should put off buying a 5G-compatible phone or laptop. The price differential is marginal, and you’ll probably be able to enjoy the faster performance before the equipment wears out. But keep in mind that building out nationwide network infrastructure is a laborious process. For people living in Putney, Vermont, where I recently spent a two-week vacation, having any cell signal at all would be an improvement.

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