Apple CEO Tim Cook spent a good chunk of the company’s iPhone event on Tuesday hyping the capabilities of 5G connectivity, even going so far as to invite Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg on stage to extoll the benefits of the carrier’s next-gen network. Fast speeds! Low latency! Gaming! Movies! It all sounded incredibly impressive, and if I had never tested a 5G phone on a 5G network, I would’ve been excited. But I have, and I’m here to tell you: We have a long way to go before your iPhone will see anywhere close to the 4 Gbps ideal download speeds Cook described—unless you’re standing directly beneath a building with a 5G node while reaching your phone toward the sky. Even then? Doubtful.
Vestberg took the stage at Apple’s event to announce the launch of Verizon’s nationwide 5G network, claiming that more than 200 million customers in 1,800 cities will be able to tap 5G speeds with their new iPhones. And Tim Cook said that those download speeds can reach 4 gigabits per second in “ideal conditions.” But Verizon’s nationwide 5G network is primarily comprised of sub-6Ghz 5G spectrum, with speeds much closer to what you get on 4G than the ideal speeds you get with the millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum that makes up Verizon’s Ultra Wideband 5G network, which is only available in specific parts of some cities.
“Although Verizon announced nationwide rollout [of 5G] today, it’s for sub-6Ghz [spectrum], which won’t necessarily see the huge performance boost that many associate and talk about when it comes to 5G,” Gartner senior principal analyst Tuong Nguyen told Gizmodo via email. “Furthermore, I don’t think any carrier in the U.S. is claiming their 5G footprint is comparable to their 4G footprint. This means many people—myself included—can’t benefit from 5G even if I have a 5G phone.”
A brief summary: Carriers already use sub-6Ghz spectrum for 4G LTE networks, so adding 5G is basically like installing a software update and then flipping a switch. But while that made it easier for carriers to get 5G off the ground, you also don’t see much of a speed boost over LTE. According to research firm OpenSignal, 5G download speeds in the U.S. average 52 Mbps—higher than U.S. 4G networks’ 28.9 Mbps speeds, but nothing to brag about compared to average download speeds in South Korea (336.1 Mbps) or Saudi Arabia (377.2 Mbps). The big difference? Those countries have built out 5G networks based on mid-band spectrum, which only T-Mobile is leveraging in the U.S. That’s not entirely the fault of carriers—the Federal Communications Commission has to auction off the necessary mid-band spectrum so carriers can use it, and the next auction doesn’t happen until December.
Gizmodo spoke to Intel Labs VP Vida Ilderem for an upcoming episode of System Reboot and she noted we’re still in the early days of 5G. According to her a new generation typically takes about 10 years to reach its peak performance and we’re only about three years into deployment.
The mmWave-based 5G networks that Verizon and, to some extent, AT&T, have been focusing on so far have required new infrastructure to build out. The 5G cells have to be placed closer together because the signal doesn’t extend very far, and it doesn’t penetrate buildings, so while mmWave 5G is incredibly fast, it’s also only useful when you’re outside. A real 5G network can’t function on mmWave alone.
Then there’s the fact that the higher-speed flavor of 5G is a battery drain that can cause your phone to overheat. In my testing of mmWave-based 5G networks, the phones I used often became piping hot when latched onto a 5G signal. I also never saw anything close to 4 Gbps—in fact, not even 2 Gbps—in my testing. Downloading entire seasons of TV to watch offline happened quickly, sure, but not so quickly as to be life-changing.
“While many of the use cases—augmented reality, virtual reality, gaming—for 5G have been mentioned in the past, none of them have come to fruition,” Nguyen added. “In other words, the ‘killer apps’ haven’t really shown to be killer apps—yet. As such, and assuming I have coverage, what are users really getting in terms of an iPhone experience?”
Most consumers are not thinking about spectrum when they buy a new phone. They know that carriers have launched 5G networks, and they know that the new iPhone will work on those networks. Apple will sell millions of these new iPhones, and the people who buy them will be sorely disappointed when the network indicator icon at the top right is more consistently latched onto 4G LTE (or, in AT&T’s case, the misleadingly named “5GE”) than it is 5G. Perhaps that will be the push carriers need to quickly build out the multi-layered version of 5G that leverages low-, mid-, and high-band spectrum to consistently guarantee fast speeds no matter where you go. But I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon.
If you’re gonna buy an iPhone 12, do it because you like the new design, or the smaller size of the Mini, or the upgraded camera features in the Pro models, or the performance advancements promised with the A14 Bionic processor. But don’t buy a new iPhone thinking that 5G is going to transform the way you use your phone. It’s not gonna happen.