Enlarge /. 5G, missile house, Pew-Pew! Does it make sense? Does it channel the usual breathless 5G marketing materials? Yes.
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Telecommunications analytics company OpenSignal published a report last week that analyzed the connectivity experience of 5G users around the world at ten different providers. Unfortunately – and usually for 5G – the source data is so mixed up that it is difficult to draw meaningful conclusions from the results.
In the United States, Verizon is the only network operator to have provided a significant millimeter-wave network (5G FR2, various bands from 24 GHz to 40 GHz). In fact, Verizon currently only uses 5G FR2, which is why it is 5G on average. The download speed bar jumps out of the diagram at 506 Mbit / s. 5G is a protocol, not a wavelength – and the extremely high speeds and low latencies that carriers and OEM providers promote so strongly come with the high-frequency, short-wave FR2 spectrum, not with the protocol itself.
The other network operators in the table use 5G in the FR1 range – the same frequencies that are already used for 2G, 3G and 4G connections. The FR1 spectrum is between 600 MHz and 4.7 GHz and is usually informally referred to as "low band" – 1 GHz and less, with excellent range but poor throughput and low latency – and "medium band" from 1 GHz to 6 GHz split with improved throughput and latency but less range.
Carriers providing 5G FR1 with medium band (such as Sprint) currently have average download speeds of 100 to 250 Mbit / s, and 5G FR1 carriers with low band (AT&T, T-Mobile) have average speeds of about 50 Mbit / s.
But it's faster than 4G, isn't it?
OpenSignal has another diagram that shows that users of all network operators are downloaded much faster with 5G than with 4G. AT&T users, for example, achieve an average of 32.7 Mbit / s with 4G and 62.7 Mbit / s with 5G. Unfortunately, this says more about the density of the connected population than about the protocol itself – there are currently very few users with 5G-enabled phones, so they benefit from a much lower spectrum overload.
The 4G standard already specifies download speeds of 100 Mbit / s for moving clients and 1 Gbit / s for stationary clients. Even Verizon's millimeter wave speed test results are significantly slower than the maxima that have been defined for 4G for a decade.
For most people, the real bottleneck in their cellular data throughput isn't the protocol at all – it's the number of other wireless customers with whom they need to share the spectrum. The solution to this is not necessarily a protocol change, but only more towers – and frequencies with a shorter range that enable smaller broadcast and collision domains. Fewer connections per tower mean more throughput and lower latency for each of these remaining connections.
This doesn't mean that 5G is worthless – even in the same spectrum, the 5G protocol offers lower latency than previous protocols. With an air latency in the range of 10 ms and a total latency of ~ 30 ms, most 5G FR1 networks have a latency advantage of 30 percent to 50 percent compared to existing 4G networks. Lower latency means faster webpage loading, better gaming, and generally better scaling in dense environments.
5G is still hard to find
The final, ugly truth about 5G is that very few people use it consistently. According to OpenSignal, T-Mobile is the world leader in the availability of 5G – with an availability of less than 20 percent for its 5G-capable users.
Verizon, which, as you'll recall, only uses millimeter-wave 5G, follows the package with an availability of only 0.5 percent. These numbers prove the point we made earlier about speeds – we still don't know what speeds will be like because so few people can use the service. The more people get 5G-enabled phones and the network operators switch more of their operations to 5G, the lower the average speed per user.
We don't yet know how far these speeds will drop per user. However, we can be sure that low-band and mid-band 5G connections will no longer offer double the throughput of 4G connections on similar bands once 5G becomes the norm.