Good news: 5G is getting faster! Just not for everyone!

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ITEM: Maximum 5G speeds are getting faster in most of the markets where it’s been launched. Whether all 5G users are actually seeing those speeds is another story.

Opensignal – which regularly measures real-world mobile data speeds – only just started releasing 5G speed measurements in June, covering just two markets: South Korea and the US. The latest report covers 12 markets, four of which are now registering 5G speeds above 1 Gbps (the US, Australia, Switzerland and South Korea, in that order).

Meanwhile, the UAE and Finland are pretty close to the gigabit threshold, and while the UK is the relative laggard at 599 Mbps, that’s still hella fast.

More interestingly, in most markets 5G speeds are actually faster than tey were in Opensignal’s last report two months ago. Switzerland, South Korea and UK saw a 10% increase in maximum download speeds, while Australia and UAE reported tremendous speed boosts.

The US is the sole exception – most likely because two months ago it was already topping 1.8 Gbps.

That said, the US is also unique in that it’s the only market in the gigabit club using mmWave spectrum for 5G – the other three are using mid-band spectrum (3.4 – 3.8 GHz). That’s significant, says Opensignal’s VP of Analysis Ian Fogg, because mmWave is regularly touted as enabling superfast 5G speeds. But mid-band – which is the most popular spectrum for early 5G launches – is proving it can deliver similar speeds, and with far greater geographic coverage.

That matters because while the US may be able to boast the fastest 5G speeds, 5G coverage is limited to select urban hotspots in a handful of cities. To be fair, US operators don’t have 3.4 – 3.8 GHz as an option yet because the FCC is still working on rules to clear the shared 3.5-GHz band for 5G usage. As things stand now, it’s going to be the middle of next year before the band is even made available for auction.

Other countries have issues with 3.4 – 3.8 GHz spectrum availability – not least because of the problem of satellite operators using it for extended C-band services, which means either satellite operators have to be convinced to give up the spectrum, or operators have to take measures to make sure their 5G services don’t interfere with satellite C-band signals.

Anyway, while it’s nice that 5G is delivering maximum speeds above and beyond 4G, those figures still come with a whole bunch of caveats we’ve covered here before, starting with the fact that average 5G speeds tend to be much lower, because not every 5G customer is going to experience gigabit 5G.

Opensignal hasn’t yet released figures on average speeds from the latest dataset, but back in June, the firm reported that Samsung and LG 5G phones in South Korea were clocking average download speeds of 111.8 Mbps – way below the maximum recorded download speed of 988 Mbps. On the bright side, that was still much faster than average 4G speeds in the same time period. But you can imagine how low the lowest 5G speed had to be to come up with an average speed that far below the maximum.

One reason for the experience gap that is mobile download speeds depend greatly on which device you happen to be using, according to another recent Opensignal report. That report covered 4G smartphones, but it’s reasonable to assume the same applies to 5G devices (even if there are only a few models on the market).

The other big caveat, of course, is that download speeds are just one performance benchmark of 5G. In terms of upload speed and latency, 5G isn’t any better than 4G, for the obvious reason that commercial 5G services are currently of the NSA (non-standalone) variety, meaning they rely on 4G infrastructure. (No word yet from Opensignal on whether 5G latency has improved – a spokesperson told Disruptive.Asia they’ll be extracting and releasing more results from the dataset later.)

Faster downlinks are always welcome, but the real value-add of 5G is latency of around 1 millisecond and massive MTC connectivity, and NSA-level 5G isn’t really going to deliver that. That will come with the next version of 5G, which will see the light of day commercially in the next year or two. But for now, 5G is still essentially a fatter data pipe fitted on top of 4G.

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