Study Shows US 5G Is An Over-hyped Disappointment
from the we're-not-#1 dept
We’ve noted for a while that the “race to 5G” is largely just the byproduct of telecom marketing departments and lobbyists hoping to spur lagging smartphone sales and scare lawmakers into obedience. Yes, fifth-generation wireless (5G) is important in that it will provide faster, more resilient networks when it’s finally deployed at scale years from now. But the society-altering impacts of the technology are extremely over-hyped, availability has been dramatically overstated, and even if it was a “race,” our broadband maps are so terrible (by industry design) it would be impossible to actually determine who won.
Even if you still want to view 5G as a race, there’s very little indication we’re actually winning it.
A new study by OpenSignal looked at crowdsourced 5G network performance data around the world, and included this telling chart comparing US 5G speeds to the rest of the world:
Sure, doubling 4G speeds isn’t nothing. But it’s sure as hell not the society-transforming technology we’ve been repeatedly promised. And in stark contrast to a lot of rhetoric about US 5G supremacy coming from the telecom sector and its BFFs at the Trump FCC, the data so far is aggressively disappointing.
Why is the US lagging behind other nations? One, because while 5G is wireless, you still need fiber fueling towers and providing backhaul country wide. But like so many aspects of US broadband, the companies that feed cell towers enjoy a very comfortable monopoly in most markets. A monopoly protected and propped up by the captured Trump FCC. Thanks to monopoly power and regulatory capture, the incentive just isn’t there to deploy fiber anywhere it doesn’t make the most immediate sense from an ROI perspective. Limited competition, spotty fiber, captured regulators, slower speeds.
The other problem, as the study explains, is US spectrum policy failure. Whereas many foreign countries have worked overtime to free up valuable, faster mid-band spectrum for public use, the US has lagged well behind on this front. The biggest holders of said spectrum are the Department of Defense and a handful of corporations, neither of which the FCC has had the courage to meaningfully pressure. It was something FCC Commissioners like Jessica Rosenworcel complained about just last year.
Instead, we’ve relied heavily on low spectrum bands (decent at providing service at range but not much faster than 4G), or high-band, millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum (which offers very fast speeds in select urban areas, but suffers from distance and wall penetration issues). The result is 5G networks that are offering a fraction of the speeds seen elsewhere around the world, Open Signal notes:
“Now, we find 5G is faster than Wifi in seven out of eight leading 5G countries but 4G is faster than Wifi in only two of these countries, Australia and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. is the exception, where Wifi continues to offer a small edge over 5G because of the large number of U.S. 5G users connecting on widely available, but relatively slow, 5G networks that are deployed using low spectrum bands…Cellular connectivity will not replace Wifi anytime soon.”
The study, in one swipe, puts to bed claims that 5G is a “race” that the US is somehow winning through sheer ingenuity and industry coddling deregulation, and that 5G will be some sort of competitive panacea (high prices also hamstring it in this area). OpenSignal has a whole separate study on why 5G won’t be supplanting WiFi anytime soon. All of this runs, again, in pretty stark contrast to claims by companies like Verizon that 5G is some widely available, near mystical technology that will revolutionize everything from smart vehicles to modern medicine.
This is all before you get to the fact that carriers are aggressively overstating where 5G is actually available, and trying to prevent the government from accurately mapping availability. Or the fact that most 5G headsets are (for now) expensive, fatter battery hogs the majority of consumers aren’t interested in. Or the fact that carriers like Verizon are trying to charge extra for 5G, when US consumers already pay some of the highest prices for mobile data in the developed world.
So on one side, we have captured regulators and wireless marketing departments falsely claiming that US 5G is going to revolutionize everything, including cancer treatment (it’s not). On the other hand we have conspiracy theorists insisting that 5G is some cancer-causing Godzilla. But the reality is 5G simply isn’t that interesting, powerful, or dangerous. It’s a modest evolution, not a revolution. And while it will certainly be a good thing many years from now when it’s fully deployed, mindless hype has been its most notable attribute thus far.