The Myths and Obscured Truths of 5G Phone Service

The congested mess of the radio frequency spectrum in the US at present.

 

Each new generation of wireless/cell phone service comes with faster data speeds and greater hype.  What is now being officially counted as 5G or fifth generation wireless phone promises extraordinarily fast data speeds, or maybe that’s just the enormous layer of hype that has insulated us from the reality of what 5G really is and will be for most of us, most of the time.

We all know that over time the data speeds on our phones have been increasing.  There have been a number of technological changes allowing for those speed increases, and it is not quite as simple as clean changes between each different generation.  There have been intermediate steps as well – 3.5G, 3.75G, 4.5G and 4.9G, to name just a few.  There have also been disconnects between the official names for the “behind the scenes” technologies and the marketing names the wireless companies have boasted about – most recently with AT&T’s marketing boasting about having 5G technology that, in technical terms, was not 5G technology at all.

There are plenty of tables on plenty of web pages showing the different speed capabilities of the different generations of wireless connectivity, and we’ll not repeat any of that, because most of the tables fail to reflect the real-world experiences we get during our normal daily operations.  The theoretical speeds assume a perfect set of circumstances – you’re right next to a cell phone tower, you’re not sharing the cell phone tower with any other users, and there’s a fast direct connection from the tower into the more general “internet cloud”.  As soon as you start to move away from the tower, your signal weakens of course, and that can translate to slower speeds.  And as soon as more people start connecting to the tower, it has to share its total bandwidth among more users, and each person often then gets just a share rather than a full theoretical allocation of maximum bandwidth.

Which leads to our first point.

Why Not Just Fix 4G’s Failings

The enormous discrepancy between theoretical and real-world speeds makes the theoretical claims useless and meaningless.  In theory, your phone at present, in a 4G LTE area, is capable of download speeds up to 1 Gbps.  But what does it actually get?

Why don’t you check your download speed right now – first download the Ookla Speedtest app, then turn off your Wi-Fi and run the app.  How close do you get to 1Gbps?  If you get 100 Mbps, you’re doing better that most of us, most of the time (my recent record is 157 Mbps, but that was a one-time outlier).

Who really cares what the theoretical maximums are, when the real-world experiences are so much removed from that?  Do we really need an even higher theoretical maximum when most of the time, we’re struggling to get 5% of the promised 4G maximum speeds?  Why not just do whatever is needed to bring 4G closer to its actual capabilities?

For that matter, if we really are getting even a modest but reliable 50 Mbps speed connection, do we need anything more than that?  The answer to this question is surely “No, we don’t”.  50 Mbps is fast enough to stream two or three 1080P movies simultaneously, and to be doing web browsing, checking email, and more bandwidth spare.  And remember, this is on a phone.  We don’t need and physically can’t watch multiple movies at the same time.  We don’t need to be uploading and downloading large files interactively “while we wait”.  Apart from some ultra-high-end gaming applications (which are more suited for a regular computer and full size screen), any and every conceivable phone type application can work at full speed at 5Mbps or less.

5G Is Not a Solution to Any Present Problems

We don’t need even faster theoretical speeds through a new technology.  We need the wireless companies to make good on the potential of the current 4G speeds.  How can we realistically expect 5G to be any faster than 4G in a case where 4G is seldom giving up more than about 5% of its promised maximum speed?

It is a bit like being stuck in a commute on the freeway, crawling along at 20 mph.  A faster car won’t see us go any faster in the bumper to bumper traffic.  We need more freeway lanes rather than faster cars.  Does 5G also give us “more lanes” as well as “more horsepower”?

The Promise of 5G

5G service has been described in terms of ridiculous optimism.  For example, this recent Wired article claims we’ll get 600 times faster data speeds than we do on 4G service – 10 Gbps.  Even if that were possible, we doubt any of our phones would be able to process the data coming in at that speed.  Typical solid state memory write speeds (eg on a fast SD card) seldom go over a 1 Gbps write speed – ten times slower than the data that might be coming in from a wireless connection.

It is also interesting to see their claim that 10Gbps is 600 times faster than 4G.  4G’s theoretical maximum is 1G, 10G is only ten times faster than that.  A speed 600 times slower than 10GBps is 16.7 Mbps – we’ll grant that is closer to reality with 4G, but it is neither fair nor accurate to quote theoretical maximum 5G speeds alongside actual real world 4G speeds.

The Wired article hints at the contradiction between reality and theory when it observes that the fastest 5G network in the world (in Saudi Arabia) averages 144.5 Mbps, and here in the US, 5G speeds are averaging 33.4 Mbps, which is only twice the cited speed of 4G in Wired’s article.  So, within a few short paragraphs in a single article, our 5G expectations collapse down from 10 Gbps to 33.4Mbps.

There is another claim that seems close to physically impossible.  Actual data throughput and the experience of responsiveness and speed as a user is measured not just by data transfer speeds, but also by the time it takes for computers to talk to each other.  When you ask for a web page through your browser, your computer doesn’t just say “give me this page” as a single request.  Your computer ends up talking to half a dozen, maybe more, different computers, and has maybe 100 – 150 different “conversations” as part of the process of getting a single web page.  Each time your computer “says something” it takes time for that message to travel through the internet, being switched through a dozen or more points as part of that, and each time the other computer replies, it takes time for your computer to receive its answer.  These delays are described as latency.

Some of these delays are “switching delays” as your signal goes through routers on its path from your computer to the destination computer at back.  (Think of these like driving through your city and needing to stop at lights along the way.)  Some of these delays are just the time it takes the signal to travel each mile of distance – fiber cable carries signals at about 70% of the speed of light, or about 130,000 miles per second.  A signal can go around the world five times in one second.

That seems unbelievably fast, but when you reduce it down to milliseconds, that is only 130 miles per msec.  It takes 20 msecs for a signal to travel from coast to coast oneway, plus the extra time created by switching delays.  And so on.  This all adds up to a lot of delay.

5G claims it will reduce this latency down to virtually zero.  That is a nonsense/impossible claim, because the speed of data traveling down a fiber cable can not be increased, and neither can the speed of data traveling through the radio waves between your phone and a tower.  Maybe the switching speed of the circuits in each tower can be improved slightly, but that isn’t going to be massively noticeable.

The wireless carriers claim they’ll bring more of the computing to the “edge of the cloud”, but you know for sure that there’s not going to be an enormous server farm at the base of every cell tower.  So the concept of “edge” is fuzzy rather than exact, and won’t apply to all services – even something as simple as a Google search query needs to get to a massive Google server farm, not just to a cache close to a cell phone tower.

Fitting 5G Into the Congested Radio Frequency Spectrum

Something few people ever pause to consider is there is what has become, today, a very limited amount of different frequencies available for any new type of radio service.  There’s effectively not a single Hertz of unused bandwidth from any frequency way below the point that becomes useful for cellular service (say, 300 MHz at the lower end) and the point where frequencies go too high to be of value (a number that keeps extending upwards, albeit with more and more compromises and limitations).

This is graphically illustrated at the top of the article – the white space is unused space, and as you can see, every frequency is already being used, often by several different competing and potentially conflicting services.  (I know the chart is too small to see in detail, if you are interested, you can see the complete chart, at any magnification you wish, here.)

The problem is that, as a rule of thumb, the faster you want your internet speed to be, the broader the chunk of frequencies you need.  This has encouraged each new generation of phone service to go further up the frequency spectrum, and with 5G, there has been a split into three different regions – some relatively low frequencies (ie under 1 GHz) (note that “relatively low” needs to be stressed – 1GHz is an extraordinarily high frequency already), some medium frequencies (between about 1 and 6 or so GHz) and some stunningly high frequencies, way over 6 GHz.

These different frequency groups have slightly different properties.  In general, the lower the frequency, the further it can travel (but never more than line-of-sight at any cell phone frequency) and the better it can penetrate objects, but the slower its data speeds will be.  The highest frequencies, 39 GHz, are severely attenuated even by a thin sheet of window glass (this article says they drop by 65% – 70%) and for all intents and purposes, are blocked by almost everything.

This is creating a modern day Tower of Babel.  Originally, cell phone service in the US was all clustered around one single frequency band, about 800 MHz.  Back then, the frequency chart, above, wasn’t nearly so congested.  Even so, a problem soon arose because different countries had different “gaps” which they could allocate to cell phone service.  By the 1990s, things were still manageable – there were four main frequency bands in use for cell phones around the world – 850 MHz, 900 MHz, 1800 MHz and 1900 MHz.  But then with 3G and 4G service, more frequencies were needed to provide support for the extra data being served, and different countries started allocating whatever space they had.

It is now common for a cell phone to support ten or more different frequency bands so as to maximize its value around the world.  Even this isn’t enough to guarantee coverage everywhere.  There are 22 different defined 4G frequency ranges, and because different bands support different types of 4G, these 22 different frequency ranges end up as 88 different “bands”.

This image above shows all the different bands that a new Samsung Galaxy S20 FE 5G supports.  Early cell phones supported just one or two bands.

Oh – as well as those bands, most cell phones also have two bands for Wi-Fi, another band for Bluetooth, and possibly a FM radio receiver as well.

5G adds still more frequency ranges, and still more bands (and continues to add more as time passes).

The important point to keep in mind here is that there are actually three different types of 5G.  Your wireless carrier may support one, two, or all three, and your local cell towers may only support one of the three different bands, maybe two, seldom all three.  You’ll get very different experiences from the three different bands – for example, a Wall St Journal review of the new iPhone 12 series reported they achieved speeds, on the Verizon mmWave network (the fastest highest frequency type), of up to 3 Gbps when standing right next to the cell tower.  But a block away, the speed had dropped to 800 Mbps on the street, and when they went inside a building, there was no 5G signal at all.

So clearly it is possible to achieve crazy-fast speeds, but only if you’re right next to the cell tower, and also, we suspect, only if you’re not sharing that service with multiple other users at the same time.  In the real world, we doubt you’d regularly see even the 800 Mbps very often, and only when outdoors.

The review also reported that when communicating at top speed, the iPhone became too hot to hold!

At least they managed to find some 5G.  A friend bought a wireless device to use with Verizon’s 5G service, and walked a block in Manhattan that allegedly offered that service, and was unable to pick up any 5G signal at all.

It is similar internationally.  A friend in London has had a 5G phone for a while, and has only found a couple of spots in London where 5G service can be found, and at speeds nothing like those promised.

Our 5G Experience

We received a new Samsung A71 5G phone, served by Google’s Fi service (which in most cases uses T-Mobile’s network).  I drove around the Redmond/Bellevue area and tested both the 4G and 5G speeds at four different locations, chosen more or less at random, including the Microsoft world headquarters campus and close to T-Mobile’s US headquarters, but each time being served by a different cell tower, and with moderate to reasonable signal strength.

I was stationary in my car for each test.  (Speeds are often slower when you are driving, and also, if driving, signal strength and possibly serving tower can change, block to block, making comparisons unfair).

I did two or three speed tests of both 4G and 5G at each location, using the excellent Ookla Speedtest app (available on both iOS and Android) and monitoring tower connections and protocols with the Network Cell Info app (unfortunately only available on Android – Apple doesn’t allow apps to get quite so much “low level” data about its phones).  Speeds are in Mbps and latency is in milliseconds.

Location 4G Download 5G Download 4G Latency 5G Latency
Locn 1 Min 34.3 11.1 28 28
Locn 1 Avg 35.1 38.3 29 32
Locn 1 Max 35.9 60.1 30 39
Locn 2 Min 41.2 52.2 23 32
Locn 2 Avg 44.8 61.1 24 38
Locn 2 Max 48.4 74.4 25 44
Locn 3 Min 148 55.7 21 24
Locn 3 Avg 152.5 112.9 24 28
Locn 3 Max 157 146 26 32
Locn 4 Min 52.7 62.1 28 27
Locn 4 Avg 65.4 65.4 29 31
Locn 4 Max 78.1 68.7 30 34
All test Avg 74.5 69.7 26.4 32.5

As you can see, the 5G average download speed was better than 4G in locations 1 and 2, the speed was the same at location 4, and location 3 had faster 4G than 5G speed.  Averaging all the readings at all the locations showed 4G to be slightly faster, overall.

We also have to observe that latency – the property of a connection that 5G promoters are claiming they’ll reduce to practically zero, was appreciably longer/slower with 5G in all four locations and overall.

Our testing may not be representative of what is happening around the country.  Some areas do have some small patches of truly faster 5G service, and more areas will be getting faster service in the future.

But, at least for the high-tech corridor on the Eastside of Seattle, and right now, we’re not seeing a compelling case for 5G at all.

Should You Buy a 5G Phone

Based on our observations, and what we’ve read about other people’s experiences, for most of us, if you already have a reasonably modern 4G phone that you’d not be upgrading if it weren’t for 5G, you are probably best advised to delay an upgrade for another year or so.  That will give time for the wireless service providers to come up with clearer patterns of which frequencies they are using, making it easier for the cell phone manufacturers to provide sufficient support for more frequencies.

It will hopefully also see more truly fast 5G deployed.

If you need (or want) to upgrade your phone anyway, at present, then if you can get a phone with some 5G capabilities included, and if it doesn’t cost too much more than a similar phone without 5G, we’d probably suggest you get the 5G version.  This “future proofs” your phone somewhat, and hopefully over time, you’ll get more and more benefit from the 5G services, although (depending on your location) maybe at present you’ll get no added benefit at all.

Our sense is that the wireless companies are now much more focused on adding new 5G cells than they are on continuing to deploy more 4G cells, so into the future, phones that have 5G as well as 4G will have more choices of cell sites to connect to, and generally better service as a result.

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