The Slow Rollout of Super-Fast 5G

The grand promise of 5G wireless service—connection speeds 10 times as fast as the speediest home broadband service—is slowly moving closer to reality.

AT&T is launching its new 5G service Friday in 10 cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Jose. Notably, the service is based on real 5G standards, unlike AT&T’s earlier “5G Evolution” offering, which in reality was just a variety of 4G. Still, AT&T concedes that the new service for now will only deliver speeds comparable to “5G Evolution”—about 158 Mbps, or roughly similar to the fastest available 5G service in the US offered by competitor T-Mobile.

With the new AT&T offering, all four large US carriers have some sort of 5G service available to some consumers. Even so, all of these networks are still a long way from living up to the 5G hype. Most offer only a modest speed boost over the more common 4G services, while the few delivering the fastest connections are spotty at best. Meanwhile, other countries—including South Korea, Switzerland, and China—are on track to make high-speed networks widely available by the end of 2019.

The next generation of high-speed wireless connectivity, 5G, has the potential to enable speeds of up to 10 Gbps, or 10 times as fast as Google Fiber’s home broadband service. But so far, the fastest 5G download speeds in the US top out at around 1.8 Gbps, according to tests conducted by data analysis firm OpenSignal. Those are the fastest speeds in the world, but they’re rare.

In part, the wide variation in speeds stems from the carriers’ use of different radio frequencies to deliver their 5G services. The Federal Communications Commission divides the wireless spectrum into three categories: low-band, mid-band, and high-band. The low-band, used by broadcast television and mobile data, is the most crowded and therefore the slowest. The high-band, which historically hasn’t seen much use, has an enormous amount of untapped bandwidth available; the fastest 5G services use the high-band’s “millimeter wave” range. The catch is that millimeter wave signals can’t travel far, which means carriers need to build more towers to cover the same amount of space.

The mid-band is, well, somewhere in between. It has less bandwidth available than the high-band, but it’s easier to blanket a large area with mid-band signals. Despite its advantages, mid-band 5G is still scarce in the US.

T-Mobile uses the low-band and offers the widest 5G coverage of any of the big four. It says its 5G network is available to 200 million people, or about 60 percent of the country, and covers cities like New York and Los Angeles and many rural areas. A WIRED review found download speeds for the service ranging from 5 Mbps to 158 Mbps. The high end is impressive; the average 4G speed in the US is 21.3 Mbps, according a report published by OpenSignal earlier this year. Still, T-Mobile’s 4G network can exceed 100Mbps. T-Mobile says that on average its 5G service should be about 20 percent faster than its 4G service.

There’s another catch: T-Mobile only supports two 5G phones—and they’re expensive. The Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G costs $1,300, compared with a non-5G version that retails for $1,100, while the OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren Edition costs $900, compared with the non-5G, non-McLaren OnePlus 7 Pro which retails for $700. If you’re an Apple partisan, you’re going to have to keep waiting: Apple isn’t expected to release a 5G iPhone until next year at the earliest.

Verizon’s 5G service uses the high-band, millimeter wave spectrum. Its mobile 5G service delivers download speeds ranging from 600 Mbps to 1.5Gbps, our reviewer found. But the service is available only in a few parts of 17 US cities, such as streets in the Lincoln Park area in Chicago and around Bryant Park in New York City. Even there the signal is so weak that the connection drops if you move indoors. The service not only requires a new, more expensive phone; Verizon charges an extra $10 a month. The company also has a 5G home broadband offering, but it’s also limited to a few locations.


The WIRED Guide to 5G

AT&T’s new service uses the low-band. It also has a millimeter-wave service that it only offers to business customers in a few locations.

social experiment by Livio Acerbo #greengroundit #wired