U.S. carriers have talked a big game around 5G for years now, claiming its “blazing fast” upload and download speeds could usher in everything from driverless cars and smart cities to HD movie downloads in less than a minute. That clearly hasn’t happened, and until relatively recently most everyday consumers couldn’t even access rudimentary 5G services even if they wanted to. Luckily, in the U.S. that appears to be changing.
A new report released by Ookla placed the U.S. at the very top of a list of 40 countries in terms of 5G availability. To determine this, Ookla tested to see what percent of users with 5G devices spent the majority of their time actually on 5G during Q3. Under that criteria, the U.S. ranked number one with 49.2% availability.
But hold on, don’t whip out your red, white, and blue foam finger just yet, it’s not all good news.
The actual download and upload speeds (in other words, the whole point) of 5G networks still vary significantly by country according to the report. Though the U.S. ranked first in availability, its actual download speeds were amongst the worst of early 5G adopter nations. Ookla placed median 5G download speeds at 93.73 Mbps in the US, far lower than the UK’s 184.2 Mbps median and far lower still than South Korea, which led the pack at 492.48 Mbps. The U.S. placed around the same relative position for upload speeds as well.
And while U.S. wireless customers can take some solace knowing they’re on the top of the availability list, the list itself is unimpressive as a whole, especially in relation to the types of coverage necessary for 5G’s most ambitious promises.
A separate availability analysis from OpenSingal earlier this year measured 5G availability by major carriers and determined T-Mobile testers were connected with 5G just 34.7% of the time. That’s not great, but it looks phenomenal when compared to testers from AT&T and Verizon, which were connected to 5G just 16.4% and 9.7% of the time respectively according to the analysis. Figures like that have caused critics like Public Knowledge Senior Vice President Harold Feld to describe 5G to Reuters as still being in, “the fake it until you make it stage.”
5G availability and increased speeds could both be crucial factors in getting more users to jump on the 5G train. Even though carriers have liberally invested billions into 5G network expansions over the past few years, that investment hasn’t made much of a meaningful difference for consumers. Overall the majority still don’t feel compelled to spend their own money on 5G. That point was born out in a 2020 J.D. Power survey shared with Insider Intelligence which found over half (53%) of U.S. adults said they wouldn’t pay a single dollar more for 5G. Just 7% of those surveyed said they would pay $20 more for the service.