About two years ago, wireless carriers in the U.S. and South Korea flipped the switches on the first commercial 5G networks. And while 5G is still in its infancy, now seems like a good time to take stock of where 5G is at right now, and where it’s going.
For those who have managed to avoid the countless ads by carriers claiming to have the biggest or fastest 5G network in the U.S., 5G stands for the fifth generation of wireless cellular networking, offering higher speeds and greater bandwidth compared to 4G LTE. It’s the future of connectivity, and theoretically 5G will help spur the growth of experiences like self-driving cars and streaming virtual reality.
But we aren’t there yet, and over the next few years, it’s going to take a lot of investment from three main groups—the 3GPP (which establishes standards for 5G), wireless carriers, and device makers—to help define and create an ecosystem where 5G networks and devices live up to the hype and convince people 5G is something worth buying into.
The role of the 3GPP, or 3rd Generation Partnership Project, may be the most straightforward of the three, as it’s a group comprised of multiple organizations and governing bodies that develops and finalizes that standards for wireless networks across the world. The group was originally formed during the development of 3G (hence the name) back in 1998, and has since overseen the specs for 4G and now 5G.
The most recent collection of finalized specs that define what 5G is and what it can do is known as Release 16, which was published last year in July and includes important guidelines for things like multi-user MIMO, which enables a great number of users to connect to a single access point, and 5G V2X sidelink, which adds critical safety protocols and 5G communication with other devices to cars. And looking forward, 3GPP is now working on finalizing Release 17, which was announced at the end of last year and will go through several iterations before being finalized sometime in Q3 2022.
Then there are the wireless service providers in the U.S., led by AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon, with Dish on deck. Verizon was the first to turn on its 5G network, but T-Mobile actually has a significant lead right now in terms of overall 5G coverage. According to stats published by T-Mobile and gathered by an independent third-party analytics group using crowdsourced data, T-Mobile currently covers 280 million people across 1.6 million miles throughout the U.S. compared to around 230 million people for AT&T and Verizon. This jives with numbers from Opensignal, which found that on average T-Mobile users are connected to 5G around 30.1% of the time, compared to 18.8% for AT&T, and just 9.5% for Verizon.
Now there are still a number of dead spots and zones without 5G coverage, but just two years in, the early spread of 5G is quite encouraging. If you want a deeper dive into how 5G networks fare in your state, check out Opensignal’s regional analysis data.
Coverage is improving, but what about speeds? According to Opensignal, T-Mobile also has a slight edge there, with average 5G speeds of 58.1 Mbps, compared to 53.8 Mbps for AT&T and 47.4 Mbps for Verizon. And while those numbers might not sound like much, that’s actually a significant increase from just six months ago, particularly for T-Mobile and AT&T, who had average download speeds of just 33.7 Mbps and 42.6 Mbps respectively.
The reason for T-Mobile’s advantage comes from the different strategies each carrier is using to expand their 5G coverage. Following the merger between T-Mobile and Sprint in 2019, T-Mobile acquired a huge swath of mid-band 2.5Ghz spectrum, which added wider range and a noticeable speed bump to T-Mobile’s 5G network.
Verizon took a different approach, instead focusing primarily on building its millimeter wave-based 5G network, which offers even more impressive speeds that can hit upwards of 2Gbps. The downside of mmWave is that it has very limited range that typically extends just a block or two from the closest 5G cell and doesn’t penetrate well though walls and buildings. This makes expanding Verizon’s 5G network a bit more costly and the rollout slower, because the carrier needs to deploy a greater number of nodes in a given area. Basically, mmWave is more of a long term play for 5G supremacy. This strategy led Verizon to focus more on supporting mmWave 5G in major metropolitan areas, while it works to expand its low and mid-band 5G coverage, which the company launched last October.
And then there’s AT&T, which has a mix of both low and mid-band along with mmWave 5G, which covers large parts of the Northeast, the Midwest, Texas, and California, but like Verizon, still falls a bit short when it comes to overall nationwide coverage. But as with the other carriers, it’s a constantly changing picture, so for the most up-to-date coverage info, check out AT&T’s online coverage map here.
Unfortunately, while 5G coverage is expanding, a recent report from Speedcheck.org rightly points out that speeds are still far from the promised “wireless fiber” networks 5G advocates have been pushing for so long. Speedcheck attributes today’s less-than-stellar 5G performance to three main issues: political strife between the U.S. and China, older NSA (non-standalone) 5G configurations that relied on 4G to help carry network signals, and the lack of available mid-band spectrum prior to a recent FCC auction (more on that later).
The other important thing to know is that depending on where you are and what device you’re using, the different flavors of 5G are denoted on your phone in different ways, with some less expensive phones like the Moto 5G Ace only supporting low and mid-band 5G. On all the carriers, low and mid-band 5G are usually signified by a standard 5G icon in the corner of your phone. When it comes to faster mmWave 5G, AT&T uses 5G+, while T-Mobile and Verizon favor 5G UW or 5G UWB for Ultra Wideband. Unfortunately, despite repeated calls do away with the practice, AT&T also has an icon for 5G E, which stands for 5G Evolution—i.e. not 5G at all, just plain old 4G LTE service dressed up.
So now we know what parts of the country are covered with 5G, which types of 5G we can access, and what 5G data plans cost, but the issue of which devices are compatible is another matter. Right now you can choose from a 5G smartphone or a mobile hotspot, and from a consumer standpoint, phones have made some of the most obvious progress in the last two years. When 5G first launched, I plotted a 5G speed map of Chicago using a Moto Z3 paired with Motorola’s bulky 5G Mod, which had odd-looking protrusions on its body to support a bigger antenna, but suffered significant battery drain when connected to 5G.
These days, 5G phones don’t look or feel much different than the LTE phones before them, and they’re not as prone to overheating as the first wave of 5G handsets. But perhaps most importantly, availability of 5G phones has increased dramatically, especially with Apple and Google releasing their first batch of 5G phones last fall.
Now admittedly, there is still a bit of tax when it comes to 5G phones, but they’re not anywhere near the kind of hard sell they were back in 2019. The premium phone market offers the widest range of handsets, with the full iPhone 12 and Galaxy S21 lineup featuring support for all the different flavors of 5G. Meanwhile, phones like the Pixel 5, Pixel 4a 5G, and OnePlus 8T fill out the mid-range segment.
For budget phone buyers, the pickings are still quite slim for anyone looking for a truly cheap 5G phone. While phones like the Nord N10 5G do exist, there aren’t any budget 5G phones that support faster mmWave 5G. This is one of the biggest weaknesses of 5G right now, and it’s something I expect to change especially as we move into the latter half of 2021.
For those wondering whether or not to buy a new 5G phone right now, a lot will depend on how much you’re willing to spend and where you live. If you’re looking at a higher-end phone, the choice is relatively simple. The iPhone 12, Galaxy S21, Pixel 5, and others support all the necessary 5G bands, which means you don’t have to think about think about what kind of 5G is available in your area. And even if you aren’t in an area with 5G right now, today’s premium phones will be set to access 5G when it does become available.
But if you’re on the fence or trying to save a buck, you’ll want to think about how much value you’d get from faster download speeds, what kind of 5G is available in your area, and how long you plan to keep your new phone. If you’re in an area with limited 5G coverage, you’re probably better off waiting for prices to continue coming down while carriers expand their networks. Right now, especially with many people still stuck at home, putting off upgrading to 5G is something you can safely wait to revisit until the the second half of 2021 when we’ll see another generation of devices—and presumably better 5G networks.
OK, so 5G networks are slowly expanding, but how long will it take until the supposedly life-changing potential of 5G becomes a reality? This is the multi-billion-dollar question. Opensignal Vice President of Analysis Ian Fogg pointed out that we’re still in the early days of the 5G era.
“We can see in the U.S. that the 5G experience is improving, and is set to improve a lot further when new spectrum that has just been auctioned off becomes available for use,” Fogg said.
That’s the C-band spectrum recently auctioned off by the FCC in January. Original projections estimated carriers would spend around $40 billion to acquire additional spectrum, which are the radio frequencies used to carry 5G signals, but the final tally blew those estimates away. In total, carriers spent more than $80 billion during the spectrum auction, with the big three dominating the sale. Verizon dropped $45.4 billion, AT&T forked over $23.4 billion, and T-Mobile shelled out $9.3 billion. Fogg said this additional spectrum will help relieve congestion and enable higher 5G speeds than what we’ve seen to date.
As an example of the kind of speeds we’re talking about, Fogg highlighted 5G speeds in South Korea, which he said average around 350 Mbps across the country’s three main providers—more than five times faster what we have in the U.S. Fogg said one of the big reasons for this is that Korean carriers already have established 5G holdings of at least 80Hz to 100Mhz, compared to the 20-50 MHz of spectrum that’s currently being used by U.S. carriers.
Fogg called out the advancements in tech we’ve seen on recent devices like the Galaxy S21, which support more mature 5G protocols like DSS (dynamic spectrum sharing) that allow a phone to connect to 4G and 5G at the same time, better carrier aggregation, which allows phones to group up multiple 5G signals together for more bandwidth, and other more advanced specs like support for standalone 5G connections, frequency division, and more.
But perhaps the most important thing to consider is that “4G was a technology that lasted about a decade, and the initial 4G standards were much less sophisticated than what we have currently deployed today,” Fogg pointed out. On top of that, as carriers upgrade their networks with new 5G equipment, Fogg said carriers “will upgrade the backhaul to the base stations quite significantly,” which means their 4G service will also get a bump in speed.
But even in these early days, “to say that there’s no benefit in 5G is crazy,” Fogg said, even if a lot of the upsides depends on where a person lives. Video streaming has already gotten significantly faster, and now that carriers are going through and upgrading their equipment, we’re seeing better performance for both 4G and 5G service.
With advancements in technology come potentially better data plans and pricing—depending on your carrier. Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile announced their network expansion plans following the FCC’s C-band auction, and while the acquisition of mid-band spectrum will certainly make 5G networks more robust, in the case of Verizon, it will also make data plans more expensive. The company said it will reserve its C-band frequencies for its premium unlimited subscribers, while those on its Metered and basic Unlimited plans will be stuck on sub-6Ghz 5G—the slowest frequency of 5G.
T-Mobile, which already has a swath of mid-band spectrum, recently announced new 5G data plans. Unlike Verizon and AT&T, T-Mobile’s 5G data plans are actually unlimited—no throttling whatsoever. T-Mobile is also offering the cheapest 5G plans of the bunch, so clearly the carrier did not come to play. Then there’s AT&T, which finally made 5G data available to subscribers of its older unlimited plans rather than making them switch to a slightly different unlimited plan just to use their new 5G phones.
Furthermore, in a recent conversation I had with AT&T senior VP Igal Elbaz following the company’s $23 billion purchase of 80MHz of spectrum, Elbaz said AT&T will be “very aggressive” when it comes to deploying its new 5G capacity in the latter half of 2021 and into 2022. Elbaz also pointed to other countries like South Korea who held C-band spectrum ahead of the U.S. and remarked that thanks to the added spectrum and capacity, AT&T could quick reach the 300 mbps download speeds 5G customers enjoy overseas. Elbaz even said that “5G is rolling out faster than any previous generation,” which definitely signals that big improvements are on the way.
So while 5G may have been a hard sell before, as networks become widespread and prices drop on devices, the next generation of connectivity is quickly turning into mainstream technology worth caring about.
[Update 2:25 PM ET] Added new info from AT&T senior VP Igal Elbaz following the company’s recent Analyst Day.