5G won’t beat the 4G experience with patchy coverage

5G 4G experience
Image credit: FrankHH / Shutterstock.com

The current selling pitch for 5G – obviously – is that it’s faster than 4G. The good news is that generally speaking, it is. But real question is: can it beat the 4G experience? And the answer to that is: “I hope you’re sitting down.”

Tech reporters have been speed-testing 5G in South Korea and the US In Seoul, Nikkei reported in April that SK Telecom’s 5G network clocked in as high as 430 Mbps using a Samsung Galaxy S10 5G. In the US, meanwhile, a report from The Verge earlier this week said Verizon is topping the 1 Gbps mark (thanks to its use of mmWave spectrum), and while Sprint is registering speeds of only around 100 Mbps, that’s still way above its 4G service.

For comparison, Opensignal’s latest State of Mobile Network Experience report [PDF] says that South Korea is currently the only country on Earth where average 4G network data speeds surpass 50 Mbps (56.3 Mbps, to be exact), though Norway comes close at 48.2 Mbps.

After South Korea and Norway, however, there’s a pretty big dropoff. Canada and the Netherlands barely crack the 40-Mbps barrier, while Singapore and Australia are just below it. Of the 87 countries ranked, only 13 reported average 4G data speeds above 30 Mbps. The US ranks at no. 30 (21.3 Mbps).

A blog post from Opensignal’s Ian Fogg clarifies that the South Korea results can’t really be credited to the launch of 5G services, which happened just before the  end of the data collection period for the report. Also, he added, “Opensignal’s active installed base is over 10 million devices in South Korea – almost all of which continue to use 4G smartphones.”

But in any case, if the fastest 4G networks are averaging 56 Mbps, that means commercial 5G is clearly faster, and thus adding value for money, right?

Well, not so fast.

In both the US and South Korea, according to the above reports, the chief issue with 5G service isn’t data speeds but consistency – or, more accurately, coverage. It’s not uncommon for 5G users to drop down to 4G – sometimes within the same city block – and the performance difference is noticeable, if not drastic.

That’s no surprise to anyone in the telecoms business – marketing hype aside, we’ve always known that the first 5G rollouts would be the NSA (non-standalone) flavor sparsely overlaid on 4G networks in very select locations in a handful of cities. Inevitably that meant very patchy coverage and a lot of dropdowns to 4G.

But customers know (and care) nothing for cellular network planning, nor should they. They expect the mobile experience to be seamless and consistent, and to deliver what the TV ads claim. And that experience has been set by what 4G offers now.

To be sure, Opensignal says, even 4G isn’t available literally everywhere in most markets. The top ten countries in its 4G availability rankings range from 97.5% availability down to a little over 90%, and you have to get to the bottom ten before availability drops below 70%. The point is that every so often, you’re going to drop down to 3G.

The thing is, dropping from 4G to 3G is an uncommon event in many markets. In 5G markets, dropping to 4G is so likely that the only guaranteed way to remain consistently connected to 5G is to find a signal and then stand still (and perhaps keep facing in the same direction).

Consequently, writes Fogg of Opensignal, the real challenge for operators deploying 5G is that it’s not enough to be faster than 4G – it also has to provide an equal or better overall experience:

If the real-world experience of 5G is not significantly faster than current mobile services then operators will find it hard to charge more for 5G service, justify further network investments or explain the benefits of 5G to acquire new customers.

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