Why 5G Has Been Disappointing So Far

Good things take time

Key Takeaways

  • 5G is not as fast or as impressive as we hoped it would be by now. 
  • A recent study reveals that 5G download speeds were only 2.7 times faster than 4G speeds. 
  • Experts say there’s a lot that needs to be done with 5G’s infrastructure to catch it up to what we expected.
5G displayed in neon blue on a computer chip with active connections highlighted in blue.
zf L / Getty Images

2020 was promised as the year 5G finally would take off, but experts say the improvements and speeds we had hoped for have yet to come to fruition.  

With promises to close the digital divide, faster download and upload speeds for improved web-browsing and in-app experiences, and increased speeds in communication between mobile networks, 5G looked to be the future.

It’s been relatively disappointing so far. Many of us are disappointed with the 5G rollout, but we have to be patient with the overhaul it takes to build these 5G networks. 

"The disappointment around 5G speeds right now has a lot to do with how the hype around 5G has failed to reflect the reality of what it takes to actually build these networks," wrote Peter Holslin, staff writer at HighSpeedInternet.com, to Lifewire in an email. 

What’s The Deal With 5G

It’s not just you. 5G isn’t as fast as we thought it would be. According to a recent study from Speedcheck, 5G download speeds across the country were only 2.7 times faster than 4G speeds last year.

The study also found that in one out of eight U.S. cities where 5G was available last year, 4G-connected users could browse the Internet faster than 5G-connected ones. 

If you have Sprint, you experience faster 5G speeds than others, at download speeds of 59Mbps, according to Speedcheck’s study. Carriers like AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon have some catching up to do, since they reportedly provide median download speeds of 53Mbps, 47Mbps, and 44Mbps, respectively. 

"The disappointment around 5G speeds right now has a lot to do with how the hype around 5G has failed to reflect the reality of what it takes to actually build these networks."

Experts say the speeds we were promised are almost too good to be true, and that the networks just can’t keep up. 

"5G has often been advertised as theoretically being able to reach internet speeds of 10Gbps, which is ridiculously fast—thousands of times faster than what we can currently get on a cell phone over a 4G network," Holslin said. 

He added that the technology required to reach those ambitious speeds is also demanding and tricky to implement. 

"The technology requires an enormous build-up of new networking infrastructure, including 'small cell' transmitters that need to be installed on practically every block of a city for them to provide sustained cellular service," he said. 

This is why in most large cities, we’re still only seeing 5G coverage concentrated in certain areas, such as in the central downtown area of a city. 

How Can It Get Better?

Speedcheck said this year would be the turning point for 5G in the US, since 5G fixes are in the works: specifically, we will see more "mid-band" 5G across the board.

The major network carriers bid more than $80 million to the Federal Communications Commission to license this mid-range frequency, which Speedcheck’s report says "speak[s] volumes to the importance of the C-band to improve 5G networks in the US."

A 5G base station cell tower.
peng song / Getty Images

"This auction reflects a shift in our nation’s approach to 5G toward mid-band spectrum that can support fast, reliable, and ubiquitous service that is competitive with our global peers," said Jessica Rosenworcel, acting chair of the FCC, said in a February announcement about the mid-range 5G bids.

"Now we have to work fast to put this spectrum to use in service of the American people."

Holslin said that mid-band 5G frequencies operate over a lower frequency than millimeter-wave. Mid-range 5G (which ranges between 2.4GHz-5GHz) can carry over longer distances and isn't as vulnerable to signal interference, therefore, requiring fewer 5G transmitters to provide service. 

"Mid-band 5G is still really fast—think in the range of 300-500Mbps," Holslin said. "That’s faster than a lot of wired home internet connections people have these days."

Holslin said it’s likely that while not the super-fast speeds that were sold to us, we will see an improvement and expansion in 5G by the end of 2021. 

"5G, in general, will take some time to build up, but it could have some really big effects once it's widely accessible nationwide," he said.

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