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Article: 5G Skeptics

by on April 1, 2022

Recently, John Gruber linked to a post by Tim Bray and both don’t really seem to see the practicality of 5G. I found this really fascinating and wanted to dig a bit deeper. This originally started a Snippet post, but I found myself writing a bit more.

Bray posted:

When I was working at AWS, around 2017 we started getting excited pitches from companies who wanted to be part of the 5G build-out, saying that obviously there’d be lots of opportunities for public-cloud providers. But I never walked away convinced. Either I didn’t believe the supposed customers really needed what 5G offered, or I didn’t believe the opportunity was anywhere near big enough to justify the trillion-dollar build-out investment. Six years later, I still don’t. This is a report on a little online survey I ran, looking for actual real-world 5G impact to see if I was wrong.

I’ll admit that I haven’t paid much attention to how the 5G deployments in Canada are going, which is the experience Bray would typically be seeing, so I’ll be primarily speaking about the what’s going on in the United States. Furthermore, Gruber wrote this just just last week:

I wrote about 5G, including mmWave “ultra wideband”, networking speeds in my review of the iPhones 12 and 12 Pro back in October 2020. Verizon’s ultra wideband network speeds are truly extraordinary — I still typically get 1,500–2,000 Mbps down with 5G ultra wideband. With both regular 5G and LTE, I typically get between 50–100 Mbps down — and I see a regular 5G connection far far more often than I do 5G ultra wideband. I don’t see any practical advantage to regular 5G compared to LTE. Those crazy-fast ultra-wideband download speeds are like owning a car that can go 200 MPH. So I’m just going to set my iPhone to use LTE all the time and save battery life. I’ll turn 5G Auto back on if I ever run into a situation where my LTE signal seems weak or slow.

Both Bray’s and Gruber’s posts are factually correct, but still mostly treat 5G (or at least low-band and mid-band) as a monolithic technology. Some of this is squarely to blame on the carriers who did hype 5G as a savior for problems that we didn’t know existed. I’ll agree with both of them there. Being curious and having a 5G-capable phone in a market that has mmWave from both AT&T and Verizon, I’ve tried 5G service on all three carriers (not counting the recent C-band deployments).

While anything cellular-based is location-dependent, I think there’s a lot of folks in the tech space who use AT&T or Verizon, might have tried T-Mobile or Sprint years ago, came away less than satisfied, and never tried again. Because of that, their 5G experience has been the go-to deployment of AT&T or Verizon—a small slice of low-band that’s often shared with LTE and maybe some mmWave. This post isn’t an advertisement for T-Mobile, but more that the approach of mid-band 5G has made the most sense and AT&T and Verizon are finally playing catch-up with C-band. They bet on the wrong horse and the marketing hasn’t matched the experience.

It’s true that on low-band 5G, it’s a lot like LTE speeds and that’s most of what AT&T and Verizon have deployed. I can understand the underwhelming aspect of going, “Great, I have arguably worse battery life, a new data indicator, and the speeds are disappointing. If I want to get really fast speeds, I have to go to a random street corner and point my phone towards a utility pole?”—basically the experience Gruber mentions with Verizon. The mmWave sites are only in select areas for Verizon, rarely reach indoors, and AT&T has even fewer (I found both in my city and they work as advertised, but the practicality doesn’t always feel there). Due to their placement and scarcity, they do feel like a special occasion.

This is where I’ve felt that T-Mobile’s 5G deployment is living in an alternative universe where 5G is actually useful. Even in the comments Bray collected, those seem to be the outliers. In my area, all T-Mobile and most former Sprint sites have gotten the entire rip-and-replace treatment to have all of the latest LTE and 5G equipment (there was awhile T-Mobile didn’t put every possible LTE band on a tower, doing the bare minimum at that time and not future-proofing). In those cases, the known areas of congestion went away. Really fast speeds are great, but the flip-side of that is that a tower can handle a lot more users doing a lot more things before slowing to a crawl. The mmWave sites for AT&T and Verizon demonstrate this, too, but they cover so much less area than a traditional cellular tower.

Just about everywhere I go, my phone is easily hitting 200-700Mbps speeds and 20-30ms latency. There’s something to be said about the predictability and stability. With the tower upgrades, there’s also improvements for LTE, typically hitting 50-100Mbps alone and actually working in tandem with 5G, known as Non-Standalone 5G. In these cases, I agree with those who think LTE has plenty of life left, but due to the nature and requirement of an LTE anchor, I have also seen 5G as more of an enhancement, rather than a replacement for LTE. As many carriers have added new LTE frequencies since the first deployments over ten years ago, throwing a few capacity-oriented 5G bands feels like a logistical evolution. To use a transportation analogy, it’s more like express or HOV lanes on a freeway. Throw a few panels on a cell tower and devices that can take advantage will.

5G home internet has been a growing market for T-Mobile and Verizon, Both are able to achieve fiber-like speeds and challenge existing incumbents. Verizon’s only matches their mmWave footprint, while T-Mobile is getting into areas that you’d be lucky to have 3Mbps DSL and maybe no cable. For the residents of those areas, 50Mbps, let alone 300Mbps, would feel transformative. There’s also the competition aspect in that I have another choice besides AT&T’s overpriced DSL service or dealing with Comcast. At my home, it would be $50 for around 500Mbps from T-Mobile or $25-$50 (depending on if I have other services) for 1-2Gbps with Verizon. These speeds are a moving target, but that’s what I’ve seen in my neighborhood and have heard from neighbors.

Finally, as I stated earlier, I’m not criticizing what Bray and Gruber have shared, because there is so much truth to it. Carriers need to have their hubris checked. On the other hand, if we had been this skeptical of LTE when it was announced, would it have made sense to stick with 3G instead? I’m sure as hell glad we didn’t.

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