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March 3, 2022

The 5G Data Deluge Has Been Smaller Than Expected


Business leaders expecting a surge of new data from 5G and a rush to adopt all the amazing new applications that go with it may be in for a surprise, as the speedy new mobile network technology so far has failed to deliver the types of bandwidth in the United States as originally expected.

For years, we’ve been waiting for so-called 5G networks that would deliver a 100x speedup in network bandwidth available to mobile devices. Depending on the part of the electromagnetic spectrum the networks occupy, the theoretical ceiling for 5G networks is somewhere around 20 Gbps, which is insanely fast.

But even a more realistic 1 to 2 Gbps speed would represent roughly a 100x boost over the 4-12 Mbps bandwidth that was pretty standard in 4G mobile networks of a few years ago. Network latency with 5G, similarly, was projected to be around 25 times better than before, and that improvement was supposed to usher in a new era of compelling customer experiences, from self-driving cars and immersive gaming experiences to holographic displays and virtual reality.

The future, alas, hasn’t been as advertised–at least not yet. After years of building 5G networks, we have a long way to go–especially in the United States. Other countries, particularly in Asia and Europe, have moved forward much faster with 5G offerings (more on that in a bit).

Slow 5G Roll

The U.S. is struggling with its 5G roll-out. According to a recent analysis of the three major carrier’s mobile networks by PCMag, 5G networks in American some cities are actually slower than 4G networks.

Average download speeds for Verizon and AT&T actually declined in 2021 (Source: PCMag network speed test)

For example, its testing shows that AT&T’s 4G networks are faster than 5G networks in nearly half of the cities it tested, including Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Tampa, Washington D.C., Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Phoenix, Portland, San Diego, Seattle, San Francisco, and Salt Lake City. For Verizon, 4G is faster than 5G in Los Angeles, Austin, and Washington D.C.

T-Mobile, on the other hand, is delivering the goods when it comes to 5G, but there’s an asterisk next to that listing. T-Mobile’s 5G networks demonstrated at least 100% improvement over 4G in nearly all of the 30 cities that PCMag tested, and many offered more than 200% speed improvements. T-Mobile was named the fastest mobile carrier for 2021 by PCMag.

The slower-than-expected roll-out is due to several factors, including the way the FCC has divvied up the new spectrum, the way mobile carriers have adopted that spectrum in their products, and the availability of back-haul networks.

The sweet spot for 5G is the so-called millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum between 30 GHz and 300 GHz, which national authorities have opened up to new 5G services. The legacy carriers in the U.S. (i.e. AT&T and Verizon) bought up large chunks of mmWave property, which offers the potential for the fastest downloads and lowest latencies.

Unfortunately, mmWave works only in a short range–about 800 to 1,000 feet, per PCMag–which limits its usefulness. Building out a network of 5G towers is expensive and time-consuming, but it is required to achieve the highest speeds. By comparison, 4G signals at lower frequencies can travel for miles to and from their antennas.

This situation has led carriers in the U.S. and abroad to use a technology called dynamic signal sharing (DSS) to mix 4G and 5G coverage. This mixing of the networks led PCMag’s Sascha Segan, who authors the annual mobile test reports, to last year state: “Verizon and AT&T have a ‘nationwide’ 5G experience that’s basically just 4G with sprinkles on it.”

T-Mobile has also dabbled wtih bringing 5G into the slower end of the spectrum thanks to an abundance of unused bandwidth in the so-called mid-band spectrum (thanks to Sprint’s squirreling it away all these years). That is likely why T-Mobile is out in front in the 5G sweepstakes and why it won PCMag’s award last year (even though Verizon offered the fastest peak 5G speeds, at 2 Gbps).

However, the 5G network isn’t just about network antenaes, and speeds also depend on the abundance of backhaul lines to the Internet backbone. Verizon and AT&T, which own the fiber optic backhaul lines (T-Mobile largley rents them), are poised to grow 5G in the future as it installs more 5G antennas and increases the density of mmWave spectrum availability. T-Mobile’s growth there is less clear.

5G Abroad

The story outside the U.S. has been quite different. A recent study by OpenSignal found that average mobile network speeds have increased substantially around the world thanks to the 5G rollout.

For instance, South Korea’s average speed went from 52.4 Mbps to 129.7 Mbps, which is far and away the top score in the world, according to OpenSignal’s report. The second fastest country in terms of average mobile download speeds was Norway, which went from 48.2 Mbps to 78.1 Mbps. The U.S. came in 30th in OpenSignal’s ranking, with an increase from 21.3 Mbps under 4G to 37.0 Mbps under 5G, right between Qatar and Greece.

The U.S. is behind many nations when it comes to 5G rollouts and mobile network speeds (Source: OpenSignal)

According to a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal written by Harvard professor Graham Allison and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, consumers in Asian countries have faster 5G networks for one simple reason: they have invested a lot more money in them.

The authors note that China has built more than 1 million 5G base stations, compared to less than 100,000 built in the U.S., which has a similarly sized country geographically. China, which has about four times as many people, has spent more than $50 billion on its 5G network so far, they write, and it’s expected to spend another $100 billion over the next few years. In the U.S., legislation sponsored by Sen. Chuck Schumer that calls for $1.5 billion in 5G spending has yet to be signed into law. China has also allocated at least 3x more midband to 5G than the U.S. has.

Alarm bells are starting to go off in the country’s capital. Allison and Schmidt note that, in 2019 paper, the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Board stated that “China is on a track to repeat in 5G what happened with the U.S. in 4G.”

Just as the transition from 3G to 4G made a host of new products and services possible, such as Google Maps, Uber, and Facebook, the move from 4G to 5G has the potential to open up new products in services in self-driving vehicles, virtual reality, and other areas.

There are multiple national defense concerns regarding the slow rollout, both in terms of the possible military or intelligence applications that superfast mobile networks can bring, as well as the strategic benefit of having a strong industrial base for manufacturing 5G equipment. China’s Huawei is banned from selling into the U.S. market and the markets of some European countries. But not one U.S. manufacturer is a major provider of 5G gear on the world market, Allison and Schmidt note.

The future for 5G is still bright. It is still going to open the spigot on big data collection and dissemination into the real world, and have a big impact on IoT and edge appliations, including AI, virtual reality, and self-driving cars. It’s just going to take a little while longer to get there–and it might look a bit different than we initially thought.

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