The Slow Rollout of Super-Fast 5G

AT&T launches its new next-generation wireless network, but breadth of 5G coverage in the US still lags South Korea and China.

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 100 Mbps. 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 supports only 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 1.5 Gbps, 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.LEARN MORE

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.

Sprint is the only major US carrier to offer a 5G service based on the mid band, with download speeds between 110 and 400 Mbps, our reviewer found. It’s only available in parts of a few cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, but the service covers a much larger area than Verizon’s 5G, according to Sprint’s coverage maps. The company claims it reaches about 11 million people, about 3 percent of the US population.

More carriers aren’t yet taking advantage of the mid band because the FCC has been slow to make it available. One reason for the delay in the US is that more of the mid band is claimed by satellite providers and military radar systems. The agency is now scrambling to auction off more mid-band spectrum for 5G. In contrast, China and South Korea have moved rapidly to turn over the mid band to 5G.

South Korean carriers are on track to cover 90 percent of the country’s population by the end of 2019, says Phil Kendall of the consulting firm Strategy Analytics. “Average download speeds across these networks are typically between 300 and 500 Mbps, with peak download speeds between 800 and 900 Mbps,” Kendall says. At the moment, though, the service works far better outside than indoors. “There is indoor coverage, but the depth of coverage is below that of 4G, and the download speeds can drop quite dramatically,” he says.

South Korea should have full 5G coverage, including in rural areas, in about two or three years, says Roger Entner of Recon Analytics. But, as Entner points out, South Korea is a relatively small country, geographically. Switzerland, another small country, will likely cover about 90 percent of its population by the end of 2019, Entner says.

China is often considered the US’ main rival in a “race” to 5G, but it’s hard to say how China’s 5G rollout is going. The Chinese state media outlet Xinhua announced in October that the country’s three mobile carriers had launched 5G in 50 cities, though it isn’t clear how widespread coverage is or how fast the connections are. “We think the reality is something short of seamless coverage in these areas,” says Kendall of Strategy Analytics. Chinese media reports speeds ranging between 100 Mbps and 1.2 Gbps in Bejing, so Kendall says, the network still needs to be improved.

Even as 5G becomes a reality in a few countries, it’s still far from a global phenomena. Many people around the world are still stuck on 3G, if they can get mobile service at all. Even in 2020, OpenSignal predicts, 3G will be more popular globally than 5G.

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