The United States is on the cusp of 5G. The first mobile 5G services are going live in Chicago and Minneapolis, but just as 5G finally gears up, we’re starting to see a backlash. The early hype is beginning to be replaced by criticism that early 5G deployments won’t offer any significant benefits over 4G. While there’s some validity to those criticisms, they tend to confuse the early limited deployments of 5G with the real importance of 5G in the future.
4G networks in the U.S. are becoming heavily loaded. More powerful smartphones and cheaper and cheaper data plans are continuing to drive up mobile data usage so consumers and operators alike will need 5G to relieve pressure on existing networks, otherwise the overall mobile network experience will worsen.
While most of the focus on 5G relates to its fast speeds, one of the biggest benefits it will bring is an overall infusion of capacity. Today, 4G networks are very inconsistent in terms of speed with average connections at the busiest time of day often being half that of speeds during the quietest times of day. We only have to look at Opensignal’s recent 5G Opportunity report and analysis of U.S. cities to see that that inconsistency is an issue for U.S. operators and consumers:
- In the U.S., average 4G Download Speeds varied between 15.3 Mbps to 28.8 Mbps in our measurements, depending on the time of day and congestion levels on a network. That means any app or service that performs optimally with a connection of 20 Mbps, would find itself with a suboptimal connection at the times when demand is greatest.
- The variation in speeds throughout the course of the day are even more pronounced in the largest cities. In Miami, average 4G Download Speeds seesawed between 17 Mbps and 43.2 Mbps over a 24-hour period in our measurements. Baltimore, Chicago and New York City’s we recorded variations of 20 Mbps or more between fastest and slowest hours.
- Compared to 77 other countries Opensignal recently analyzed, the U.S. certainly wasn’t among the most consistent, but neither was it among the most inconsistent. As the U.S. will be home to some of the world’s first 5G networks, it will likely be seen as a bellwether for any potential congestion relief those new networks will bring.
Initial 5G new radio deployments — “real 5G” — will aim to tackle these real-world problems. 5G is more efficient with its use of spectrum, but unlike previous network generations, that is not the primary way that 5G will support a better mobile broadband experience. 5G will make use of much higher frequencies in mobile networks. These frequencies have much greater capacity than the existing LTE frequencies. The 3.4 GHz – 3.8 GHz channels will be the most popular globally, but the millimeter wave (mmWave) frequencies available now in North America will support even greater capacities and higher speeds. Those higher frequency bands will prove more challenging to deploy because they’re much more limited by line-of-sight — they can be easily blocked by walls, or even by a hand holding a smartphone. But once the industry overcomes those challenges, it will pave the way for a much more consistent mobile experience, smoothing out the big peaks and valleys in speed we see throughout the day.
Over time, 5G will also improve mobile latency — a measure of network responsiveness — which will make everything from web browsing to real-time communications apps to multiplayer gaming work more smoothly. Today, many Fortnite or PUBG players are forced to play their gaming sessions over WiFi because mobile networks typically can’t provide the low and consistent latency necessary to match their reflexes.
Smartphone users will see some improvement in latency on the 5G networks rolling out this year, but the full latency benefit will come with new 5G network cores. In 2019, the “non-standalone” 5G networks we’ll initially see will involve a workaround that requires a smartphone to connect to a 5G network for data transmission while maintaining a simultaneous 4G connection to the operator core. But when solely a 5G connection is used both for data transmission and signaling, we will see latencies fall well below the 30 milliseconds average we’re measuring on today’s most advanced 4G networks — and possibly below the 1ms goal of the 5G standard.
Today’s 4G technology may be called “Long Term Evolution”, but 5G will have its own extended evolutionary cycle. The 5G experience a decade from now will be considerably improved from the networks we’ll see this year in the U.S. So, keep in mind that while 5G will encounter plenty of teething problems this year and the next, the experience is only going to improve.