5G is hot, which means many Americans will consider buying a new 5G smartphone this holiday season. Analyst firm IDC expects 5G shipments to reach 8.9 percent of smartphones shipped in 2020, accounting for 123.5 million devices. But the technology can be confusing. Opensignal, the independent global standard for measuring real-world mobile network experience, has been analyzing 5G over the last several months and reporting on the actual 5G experience consumers receive on their devices (not what you get from trials or in labs under optimal conditions). Following are some key findings and insights that may come in handy when considering a 5G purchase – now or next year.
1. 5G is Fast (Super Fast)
5G promises to bring lightning fast speeds to mobile users and even in its early days, it is.
Opensignal analysis shows that 5G users in the USA, along with users in Australia, Switzerland, and South Korea, are experiencing download speeds over 1 Gigabit per second – with the USA enjoying max speeds at 1.8 Gbps. And as 5G evolves, we expect to continue to see increasing speeds. What does this mean in practical terms? It means users will be able to accomplish tasks like downloading videos or uploading selfies much faster than they can today, and that there will be a whole host of new applications and services in the works.
2. But, It’s Not Available Very Often (Yet)
While 5G is fast, Opensignal recently found that just 1% of speed tests we conducted actually used an active 5G connection. So, while users may have a 5G phone, it will take a bit longer to find ubiquitous connectivity. Why? One reason is that 5G is still new and rolling out, city by city, state by state. Another is that there is more than one type of 5G…
3. 5G Comes in Different Flavors
There are 3 main types of 5G being deployed in the USA: low-band, mid-band and high-band (mmWave) differing in the wireless spectrum used. Spectrum refers to the radio frequencies that wireless signals travel over – radio, television, Wi-Fi and mobile phones all use spectrum. 5G spectrum is grouped into bands by their wavelengths: low-band, mid-band and high-band (mmWave).
What’s important to know is that each band has its own benefits and limitations. You can think of low-band as “wide and thin” – it covers a wide geographic area but doesn’t allow for fast speeds. Whereas high-band spectrum is “dense and deep” – it allows for very fast speeds, but in a small coverage area (e.g., the size of a city block). Many predict that mid-band spectrum will be the sweet spot, providing both reach and speed – and U.S. operators have asked the government to make more of that type of spectrum available to them. Until then, it’s important to know which spectrum band each wireless carrier uses because it will impact consumer’s overall 5G experience.
4. 5G is Still Really New
Although we’ve been talking about 5G for quite a while, the technology is still in its early days and there is lots more to come. Today’s 5G networks work with existing 4G LTE networks, so current 5G-equipped smartphones still use 4G technology even when 5G is available. The industry calls them “non-standalone 5G networks” because of 5G’s current reliance on 4G. But the next phase of development will be “standalone 5G networks” which are designed to enable an even greater improvement in user experience than existing 5G services.
Standalone 5G networks will require totally new core infrastructure, which take longer to create, but will help usher in some of the biggest benefits of 5G such as lowering latency and improving network congestion. Latency is the amount of time it takes for data to travel across the network – from one endpoint (like your phone) to another (like an app server). The lower the latency, the better as the information travels quicker. Similarly, reducing network congestion is key. Congestion, very simply put, occurs when the network is carrying more data than it can handle at any given point in time. Congestion can reduce the quality of your mobile experience by making it harder to connect to the network or slowing your network connection. 5G will help improve both these areas.
5. It’s Going to Impact More than Phones
While 5G is starting out on smartphones, it’s eventually going to help connect many devices – across your personal, work and on-the-go worlds. Developers and businesses will have the ability to create 5G-powered Internet of Things (IoT) services that will impact things like gaming, video streaming, and virtual and augmented reality. Companies are already talking about connecting industrial and agricultural equipment to the internet using 5G, which could impact how we get our food, how cars are made, etc. And let’s not forget 5G enabling self-driving cars to communicate with infrastructure like traffic lights and signs.