Unless you've been living under a rock -- which in 2020 actually sounds soothing -- you've probably heard there's a new cellphone technology called 5G. Any iPhone or Galaxy owner knows the law of Gs: Every additional G makes downloads faster. 3G sent pictures. 4G streamed video.
Apple is expected to unveil its first 5G-enabled iPhones at an event on Sept. 15. Samsung's entire flagship lineup is now 5G-equipped. So these 2020 models are going to really fly, right?
Well, hold on just a minute. 5G may hold promise for the years ahead -- but across most of America in 2020, a 5G phone does diddly squat. Testing 5G phones, I've been clocking download speeds that are roughly the same as on 4G LTE ones. And in some places, like inside my house and along the California highway, my 5G phones actually have been slower.
For the past few weeks, I've been carrying six phones: a year-old 4G LTE one and a new 5G one from each of the three major U.S. carriers: AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon. Then wherever I went around the San Francisco Bay area, I ran simultaneous download tests on them using an app called Ookla Speedtest. I've done this more than 4,000 times.
AT&T and T-Mobile both market their 5G networks as "nationwide," though they carefully dance around speed claims. AT&T says 5G means "improved speed" and T-Mobile says "faster speed," without many specifics. Verizon does make extreme-speed claims about its 5G network -- it's "25x faster than today's 4G" -- but it is, as of this summer, available in less than 1% of the country.
But let's be clear: The majority of Americans think 5G means "a faster and more reliable connection," according to a survey by the consulting firm Sykes.
My median download speed on AT&T was 32 Mbps with the 5G phone and 34 Mbps on the 4G one. On T-Mobile, I got 15 Mbps on the 5G phone and 13 Mbps on the 4G one. Verizon's limited 5G network wasn't available in my test area.
Perhaps California is a particularly difficult territory for these initial national 5G networks? Every neighborhood, smartphone model and even way you hold the phone can shape download performance -- but I'm not the only one underwhelmed by nationwide 5G performance right now. I swapped results with firms that run network speed tests all over the country with volunteers and by roaming the streets.
RootMetrics, a network-analysis firm owned by IHS Markit, said that in the first half of the year, median AT&T 5G speeds were 46 Mbps, only slightly faster than the 4G LTE speed of 43 Mbps. At T-Mobile, speeds increased more as a percentage, but its median 5G speed of 25 Mbps still can't even compete with its rivals' 4G LTE speeds.
Another firm, Opensignal, said the average 5G phone download speed in the United States between May and August was 76% faster than a 4G phone download. But the overall download speed experience of Americans with 5G phones was just 33 Mbps, the second-slowest in the world.
When I asked executives at the networks about speed, they acknowledged a truth their advertisements carefully omit. "Our 5G experience initially is as good or better than our 4G LTE experience," said Chris Sambar, AT&T's executive vice president for technology operations. Let that sink in: At least for now, 5G is ... only as good as 4G.
T-Mobile is equally circumspect, highlighting the range of its coverage, not its jaw-dropping speed. "We're not claiming that this is where the story of 5G ends. It's very much a beginning," said Mark McDiarmid, the senior vice president for radio network engineering and development. He said right now T-Mobile's 5G network is "two times as fast" as its 4G LTE nationwide average.
What should you do if you're in the market for a phone this year or next? Abbi Siler, of Little Rock, told me a cautionary tale about upgrading early. Running her shop, Abbi's Teas & Things, outdoors during the coronavirus pandemic, she relies on her cellphone to be her cash register. So a few weeks ago, her local AT&T shop encouraged her to buy a 5G-enabled $1,400 Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra. Like I experienced, her download speed where she needs it is unusably slow on AT&T's 5G network. Just to keep her business running, she ended up buying an additional WiFi hotspot from a different carrier. "What a waste of money," she told me.
There's reason to hope America's 5G situation will get better. But my advice is: Don't upgrade in 2020 without a clear-eyed view of what 5G actually means where you live. Let me break it down in some ways you won't hear in the store.
The truth about 5G in 2020
Many tech companies are counting on 5G for what's next. It could unleash new connected devices -- like smarter vehicles and medical equipment -- that need faster downloads and less latency, which is the delay in the communication between connections. I'm excited about that.
But up first are smartphones. Carriers are pushing 5G phones to look competitive and to upgrade their systems to handle our crushing data demands. Smartphone makers are marketing 5G FOMO to fuel a "supercycle" of phone purchases after years of ho-hum upgrades.
Your experience with a 5G phone in 2020 is likely to be all over the map. I got searing fast 750 Mbps downloads from AT&T in one corner of downtown. But in the same spot, my 4G phone got an also extremely fast 330 Mbps. Moreover, because of the pandemic, those aren't places I go very often. As I write this from my home office in the middle of San Francisco, I'm getting 11 Mbps downloads on my AT&T 5G phone. On T-Mobile, I get a laughable 8 Mbps on 5G, which is barely enough to stream HD Netflix.
5G's current challenges -- and future potential -- are a product of how the technology has arrived here.
Like a three-layer cake, 5G comes in bands: low, mid and high. Each band requires access to radio spectrum from the Federal Communications Commission and cellular towers in the right places.
Right now, AT&T and T-Mobile are mostly using low band. This is not the tastiest bite of the 5G cake -- it doesn't deliver much faster download speeds than today's 4G LTE networks, with which it shares spectrum. However, low-band 5G allows signals to travel the farthest and penetrate walls. Building out low band allowed T-Mobile and AT&T to claim their 5G is "nationwide," serving at least 200 million customers.
When PC Magazine challenged AT&T about shortcomings of its low-band 5G network in January, the company downplayed speed. "We've been pretty vocal that early on there's no tremendous difference," AT&T Vice President Gordon Mansfield said at that time.
Verizon, the largest U.S. wireless carrier, has announced it also will launch a low-band 5G network by the end of the year. And at least to investors, Verizon's CEO also has been blunt about the incremental improvements nationwide 5G will offer over 4G. "In the beginning, it's going to be small," Hans Vestberg told a JPMorgan conference in May.
But there's more 5G cake. Much of the world is using mid-band. It doesn't go as far but does deliver more-impressive downloads, in the range of 300 Mbps. T-Mobile got some mid-band spectrum in its acquisition of Sprint, which it is building into its own network. (I experienced T-Mobile download speeds of 250 Mbps next to the Golden Gate Bridge.) And, good news: the FCC is auctioning more mid-band access.
And then there's the delicious top layer of 5G: high band, also known as millimeter wave spectrum. The crazy-impressive speeds -- download a season of "Game of Thrones" in seconds -- come via these signals. But they can't travel very far, so they require lots and lots of equipment close by. Most networks have only a bit of this, like in that downtown spot I found with AT&T. Verizon's 5G rollout relied almost entirely on high band in dense public spaces like downtowns and arenas, a strategy that doesn't fit very well with a pandemic keeping people close to home.
While the country waits for more mid- and high-band 5G, we face another problem on the low band we already have. 5G phones sometimes don't work as well as 4G ones for people like me and Siler in Little Rock. We were both aghast to see such slow downloads in some of the places we spend most of our time.
I told AT&T about both of our cases. It sent me a different phone to test, but the result was the same. "You are two data points," said AT&T's Sambar. "We've done a lot of internal testing ... [and] we're seeing our that our 5G network is showing speeds that are at least at parity with LTE, if not better."
Rootmetrics also picked up on an issue in its national tests. When a 5G phone's service is "mixed" -- having to drop from 5G to 4G because the signal isn't strong -- median download speeds dropped to about half of regular 4G LTE speeds.
"Given this is a wireless network, there are many things that can cause the 5G network to sometimes be slower than LTE," AT&T spokesman Raul Lopez said by email. "There are times when LTE may aggregate more spectrum which may provide a faster speed. There are other times when the signal strength of the 5G network may be less than LTE."
Weeks after complaining to AT&T tech support, Siler's 5G phone still just crawls at her tea shop. She and I might get better performance by turning off the 5G capability on our phones and just running on 4G. But then what's the point of upgrading to a 5G phone?
Should you upgrade?
For now at least, the three big U.S. carriers are not charging extra fees to access 5G. But they do require you to buy a new smartphone to use the new network. And for most people, today's 5G just isn't a good reason to upgrade. It's like buying a sports car and then realizing it can't go over 65 mph very often. You're stuck in the slow lane while faster ones are built.
Of course, there are many reasons people upgrade phones -- you may want a new camera or color. But I think phone makers jumped the gun with 5G in the U.S. Back when 4G came out, there was about two years between establishing the standard and the first handset sales, RootMetrics told me. With 5G, there was just one year between establishing the standard and providing the first phone.
Even if you're being realistic about the limits of today's networks, it's hard for you to figure out exactly how the network will perform in the places where you spend your time. Those online maps made by the carriers are of little help. They don't tell you anything about what speeds you'll actually experience.
What if you just want to be ready for the future? Many flagship smartphones you can buy now, like Samsung's $1,000 Galaxy S20, are 5G-future-proof, meaning they support all the possible 5G bands. But buyer beware: Some coming models might leave out the ability to connect to the high band. Be sure to ask whether a phone can access all of your carrier's 5G bands before you buy.
If your existing phone is more than four years old, or you just shattered yours and must upgrade in a jiffy, go ahead and get a 5G model. You're likely to hold onto that phone for three or more years, and in that time 5G will become a real benefit in the United States. For under $600, you can get a 5G phone such as Samsung's Galaxy A71 5G and Motorola's One 5G.
But for everyone else, waiting will bring down the cost of great 5G phones. The extra time also will allow handset makers to improve their hardware and software -- and let networks figure out how to make sure 5G phones don't actually feel like downgrades.