It’s been a while since I checked in to see how the US is doing in the 5G race. I haven’t been following the issue since before the pandemic when the US government was tossing around the idea of buying a controlling interest in Nokia or Ericsson. That idea went nowhere but led to a lot of articles in the business press.
I decided to look anew after seeing recently that the FCC is estimating that it would cost US carriers about $1.8 billion to replace Huawei and ZTE gear in US networks. In June the FCC banned any proceeds from the Universal Service Fund to be used to buy gear from the Chinese manufacturers. The US has been joined by Australia and the UK in banning purchases of the gear. I’m still scratching my head about the requirement to pull out whatever’s been bought in the past. Network engineers tell me it’s not hard to firewall hardware from communicating with the outside, and nobody has yet shown evidence that any of the gear has been transmitting data to the Chinese. It just feels odd to see a trade dispute taken so far as to toss out working electronics.
The real 5G race isn’t about hardware but in the deployment of 5G technology. The cellular carriers are all now bragging about their 5G cellular networks. It’s an interesting marketing claim because from a standards perspective there isn’t yet any cellular traffic that can legitimately be called 5G. From what I can see, the only feature from the 5G specification that has been introduced into networks so far is dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS). This feature allows cellular carriers to simultaneously use the same block of spectrum for both 4G and 5G. This is mostly a preparatory feature that is readying the network for other 5G features – the carriers don’t want to limit future 5G to a small subset of spectrum.
When the carriers brag about 5G, what they are really talking about is the introduction of new blocks of spectrum. They’ve labeled every new block of spectrum as 5G and labeled every phone that can receive the new blocks of spectrum as 5G phones. For now, these phones are more expensive than phones that use the traditional 4G spectrum.
A recent article by Geoffrey Fowler in the Washington Post looked at the difference in 4G and 5G speeds all around the San Francisco Bay area. He drove around with six phones so that he could check 4G and 5G performance on the various carriers. What he found will surprise nobody who has ponied up for the new phones – 5G is mostly not faster than 4G. There are places where the signals for one or the other sets of spectrum were stronger, but in logging lots of miles, he didn’t find any advantage for the more expensive 5G phones. Fowler followed up with executives at the cellular companies who admitted that 5G is not yet faster today than 4G.
This is not surprising. Most of the carriers are currently using new lower frequency bands in the 5G offering. The main characteristic of lower frequency bands is that the signal travels farther but there are fewer bits transmitted with the signal. I would have guessed that since fewer people using the 5G spectrum bands that 5G phones might still be seeing faster speeds, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
The carriers are getting exactly what they hoped for with the 5G phones – they are moving people off of the crowded 4G spectrum bands that were threatening to collapse under the data loads. But unfortunately, just like happened in the early days of 4G, the network performance from a customer perspective is not living up to the marketing hype.
In terms of the 5G race, the US is far behind the rest of the world in 5G speeds. This is again due to the spectrum being used by US cellular carriers. Many other countries have introduced higher mid-range spectrum that they are labeling as 5G, and that means faster cellular speeds. As an example, the average 5G speed in South Korea is more than twice the 5G speeds being delivered in the US.
However, South Korea also offers a cautionary tale about winning the 5G race. The country has deployed well over half of all of the 5G phones being used in the world. However, the South Korean cellular companies are showing no change in average revenue per user – people are not paying more for the 5G experience. And since the experience isn’t actually 5G – they shouldn’t.