5G is a promise for the future, but isn't quite here today

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While the new iPhone 12 may be the first iPhone to utilize nascent 5G technology, you may want to temper your expectations when it comes to all the supposed speed increases.




As 5G begins rolling out across the United States, many users wonder what kind of significant speed boost they'll see over 4G LTE. Apple had promised speeds of up to 4 gigabits per second, but when -- and where -- will users see those speeds?

Most of the conversation -- including that at the iPhone 12 launch -- has been centered on Verizon's 5G UltraWide band. AT&T has their own 5G mmWave -- dubbed 5G+ -- that is launching across the United States, which is the focus of our testing today.



LTE, 5G, and 5G mmWave: not all frequencies are created equal

Before we delve into the results, we'd like to take a moment to point out the differences between 4G LTE, 5G, and 5G mmWave.

Typically, the lower the frequency, the more ubiquitous the signal as, as a general rule, the radio signal is attenuated less over distance or by shielding materials. For example, 4G LTE blankets most of the United States at this point, but its average download speeds are roughly 20 megabits per second on average, with some peaks in cities and other dense build-outs.

Still, LTE is durable and can be broadcasted about two miles at maximum, with very little concern for smaller or less-dense objects shielding the signal. This applies for much of 5G as well -- but not all of it.

Beyond some network infrastructure and routing improvements, 5G in the US is comprised of two broadcast frequency ranges, the sub-6 gigahertz band and the mmWave aspects.

Sub-6GHz band makes the 5G signal durable and far-reaching -- comparable to 4G LTE -- though it doesn't inherently offer breakneck download speeds. Nearly every user in nearly every condition that can see a 5G network, will see real-world speeds closer to 4G LTE.

Image Credit: AT&T
Image Credit: AT&T


5G mmWave is the higher frequency 6GHz band, and as such, it isn't terribly penetrative. It only has a practical range of hundreds of feet and requires a clear sight line to the antenna with absolutely no obstructions. In practice, 5G mmWave is easily blocked by walls, glass, trees, rain, and even the dead skin cell layer of the human body-- meaning its use case is somewhat limited.

So while Apple has stated that it is theoretically possible for the iPhone 12 line to get up to 4Gbps per second download speeds, actual use will vary. And, they will vary greatly.

AppleInsider has written an in-depth explanation of 5G and 5G mmWave, available here, should you be interested in finding out the nuts and bolts of it.

Tracking it down

In addition to being relatively short-range, 5G mmWave is not widespread, either. Currently, AT&T's 5G+ is available in very select locations in certain states, like California, Florida, and Arizona.

AT&T discloses this information on their website, too. They state that 5G+ won't be something that the average user will see in their homes and instead will be used to service high-traffic public places, such as stadiums, arenas, shopping centers, and college campuses.

It took AppleInsider staffer Stephen Robles a considerable amount of time to track down his AT&T 5G+ signal. With some help from AT&T, he found his closest 5G+ signal on a single street corner in Orlando, Florida.

Well, after several @ATT reps contacted me, and @rseilham confirmed the location, I went out and found 5G+ mmWave. It does exist, on exactly 1 street corner in Orlando: S Kirkland Rd and Major Ave, in the TGI Friday's parking lot. pic.twitter.com/HyKWTLfCev

-- Stephen Robles (@stephenrobles)

Theoretical download speeds vs actual download speeds

Theoretically, Apple claims that you'll be able to get up to 4 gigabits per second when using a 5G mmWave band to download. While this may be true, you're not going to see those speeds in the wild, and not indoors unless there are some very specific setups, and transmitters inside the structure. When doing a simple test, Robles saw maximum of 1.6Gbps per second with a dedicated speed test, though averaged closer to 1.3Gbps per second.

However, when actually using the 5G+ to download from a server in practice, he didn't see much improvement over LTE speeds. We have borne out this result in other locations in the US as well, on other networks, including Verizon's.

This is because a speed test is as close to an ideal situation as you can get, as there is nearly unlimited bandwidth, and data is being passed between you and a datacenter located nearby. However, when connecting to a service, such as Netflix, you'll only be able to download as fast as their servers will allow.

With full mmWave 5G, Instead of a wireless connection being that bottleneck, server farms holding media and the internet architecture in between is limiting. This is similar to what many Gigabit Internet customers see today, where they may only see 50 megabytes per second from a content delivery network, versus the 100 megabytes per second that their entire internet connection can carry.

So, in addition to relatively limited locations where 5G mmWave signals can be accessed, users can also expect that many services will not fully utilize the speeds that it promises for some time.

While 5G may be the future, it's not a service you should be banking on taking full advantage of anytime soon. Rather, it's a service that will be rolled out gradually and in certain places -- which may not be where you live.
dewmehippo

Comments

  • Reply 1 of 18
    Someone will soon file a suit alleging Apple misled them on 5G performance.
    lkruppsdw2001rotateleftbyte
  • Reply 2 of 18
    About the only “good” reason I’ve seen for having 5G on a cell phone was that demo showing multiple angles of some sports game simultaneously. Even that seems at least a little silly since, personally, I can only really watch 1 angle at a time anyway. 

    Other than that, I still haven’t seen what 5G on a cell phone is good for or why anyone should be rushing to get a phone based on 5G alone. 
    JWSCMplsP
  • Reply 3 of 18
    mwhitemwhite Posts: 285member
    About the only “good” reason I’ve seen for having 5G on a cell phone was that demo showing multiple angles of some sports game simultaneously. Even that seems at least a little silly since, personally, I can only really watch 1 angle at a time anyway. 

    Other than that, I still haven’t seen what 5G on a cell phone is good for or why anyone should be rushing to get a phone based on 5G alone. 

    My Ex had an iPhone 8 she couldn't send or receive text at her apartment now with her iPhone 12 she can send and receive them, we use Verizon....
    edited November 2020 hippo
  • Reply 4 of 18
    stephenroblesstephenrobles Posts: 91member, moderator, editor
    About the only “good” reason I’ve seen for having 5G on a cell phone was that demo showing multiple angles of some sports game simultaneously. Even that seems at least a little silly since, personally, I can only really watch 1 angle at a time anyway. 

    Other than that, I still haven’t seen what 5G on a cell phone is good for or why anyone should be rushing to get a phone based on 5G alone. 
    For me, I'm just glad to have the fake "5Ge" symbol gone from my iPhone.
    stompyhippo
  • Reply 5 of 18
    sdw2001sdw2001 Posts: 17,895member
    mwhite said:
    About the only “good” reason I’ve seen for having 5G on a cell phone was that demo showing multiple angles of some sports game simultaneously. Even that seems at least a little silly since, personally, I can only really watch 1 angle at a time anyway. 

    Other than that, I still haven’t seen what 5G on a cell phone is good for or why anyone should be rushing to get a phone based on 5G alone. 

    My Ex had an iPhone 8 she couldn't send or receive text at her apartment now with her iPhone 12 she can send and receive them, we use Verizon....
    Unlikely anything to do with the network.  Probably the phone.  My wife had a data problem years ago....I think they ended up replacing the hardware.  
    hippo
  • Reply 6 of 18
    Yeah, no kidding. Glad I bought my 12 Pro for the camera, not that. All I get is the same ol’ fake 5Ge, and I live in the OC!
    hippo
  • Reply 7 of 18
    sdw2001sdw2001 Posts: 17,895member

    About the only “good” reason I’ve seen for having 5G on a cell phone was that demo showing multiple angles of some sports game simultaneously. Even that seems at least a little silly since, personally, I can only really watch 1 angle at a time anyway. 

    Other than that, I still haven’t seen what 5G on a cell phone is good for or why anyone should be rushing to get a phone based on 5G alone. 
    For me, I'm just glad to have the fake "5Ge" symbol gone from my iPhone.
    For. Real.  

    ATT is such a crock of $hit.  5Ge is nothing but LTE-A.  And I seem to get data interruptions on the move, as I go between fake 5G and "LTE."  Then, there is of course "4G."  In reality:  

    5Ge=LTE Advanced.  

    LTE=Regular LTE/4G.  Usually noticeably slower. 

    4G=3.5G.  Far slower.  


    I'm still ordering a Pro Max tomorrow, but I'm not super stoked for the 5G.  It's the display, camera, and processor I'm interested in.  



    stephenrobleshippo
  • Reply 8 of 18
    mike1mike1 Posts: 3,024member
    I was surprised that most of my area has "regular" 5G service. I've been doing speed tests since I got my 12Pro last week and somewhat surprised at the speeds I'm getting. It's been in the high 100s to 250Mbps range. Much faster than I was getting with LTE on my iPhone X. Unfortunately, the coverage isn't any better in my area yet. If it was a dead spot or low strength with LTE, it's still a dead spot or low signal strength.
    stephenroblesdewmehippo
  • Reply 9 of 18
    jdb8167jdb8167 Posts: 624member
    About the only “good” reason I’ve seen for having 5G on a cell phone was that demo showing multiple angles of some sports game simultaneously. Even that seems at least a little silly since, personally, I can only really watch 1 angle at a time anyway. 

    Other than that, I still haven’t seen what 5G on a cell phone is good for or why anyone should be rushing to get a phone based on 5G alone. 
    The carriers want you to have low-band and mid-band 5G because a 5G cell site can service a lot more phones for the same frequencies. It makes rolling out more cell service cheaper for them. For us, it means less congestion with maybe modest download speed improvements.

    The wide-band hype is the bait. 
    edited November 2020 CloudTalkindewme
  • Reply 10 of 18
    Is there a typo when the author writes, “... versus the 100 megabytes per second that their entire internet connection can carry,” about a gigabit connection. 

    Would not gigabit internet service be equal to 1,000 (1,024?) megabits per second?
  • Reply 11 of 18
    I'm in a Washington DC suburb (very close the board of it). I'm getting the same amount of bars with my iPhone 12 Pro as my iPhone X with T-Mobile. It was showing about 125Mbps in Download but like 4Mbps (1st try)/ 25Mbps (2nd try) upload. Just ran speed test now and it is 32.3Mbps and 4.76 Upload....not so good....
    hippo
  • Reply 12 of 18
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 6,516administrator
    wehokev said:
    Is there a typo when the author writes, “... versus the 100 megabytes per second that their entire internet connection can carry,” about a gigabit connection. 

    Would not gigabit internet service be equal to 1,000 (1,024?) megabits per second?
    "Gigabit internet" generally doesn't actually mean 1000 or 1024 megabits per second, and is generally around the 900 megabit per second speed actually delivered to the router, and about that 100 megabytes per second cited in the article or less to any given device.

    It's a generalization, and not really the point of the article. Your mileage may vary, as may your ISP's difference between marketing talk and actual speed.
    edited November 2020 hippo
  • Reply 13 of 18
    I'm in a Washington DC suburb (very close the board of it). I'm getting the same amount of bars with my iPhone 12 Pro as my iPhone X with T-Mobile. It was showing about 125Mbps in Download but like 4Mbps (1st try)/ 25Mbps (2nd try) upload. Just ran speed test now and it is 32.3Mbps and 4.76 Upload....not so good....
    You may not actually be using 5G.  Apple made the decision to show the 5G symbol if the signal is available where you are, regardless of whether or not you're using 5G.  
    https://appleinsider.com/articles/20/10/20/iphone-12-5g-indicator-denotes-best-available-connection#:~:text="What's weird is that when,in use," Bohn writes.
    hippo
  • Reply 14 of 18
    I'm in a Washington DC suburb (very close the board of it). I'm getting the same amount of bars with my iPhone 12 Pro as my iPhone X with T-Mobile. It was showing about 125Mbps in Download but like 4Mbps (1st try)/ 25Mbps (2nd try) upload. Just ran speed test now and it is 32.3Mbps and 4.76 Upload....not so good....
    You may not actually be using 5G.  Apple made the decision to show the 5G symbol if the signal is available where you are, regardless of whether or not you're using 5G.  
    https://appleinsider.com/articles/20/10/20/iphone-12-5g-indicator-denotes-best-available-connection#:~:text="What's weird is that when,in use," Bohn writes.
    I saw the article on having to choose 5G on, 5G auto, and LTE and also Data Mode of Allow more Data on 5G, Standard, Low Data mode. I put it on 5G On and Allow more data on 5G as soon as I got the phone, so those tests represent the highest setting I could do.
    hippo
  • Reply 15 of 18
    I'm in a Washington DC suburb (very close the board of it). I'm getting the same amount of bars with my iPhone 12 Pro as my iPhone X with T-Mobile. It was showing about 125Mbps in Download but like 4Mbps (1st try)/ 25Mbps (2nd try) upload. Just ran speed test now and it is 32.3Mbps and 4.76 Upload....not so good....
    You may not actually be using 5G.  Apple made the decision to show the 5G symbol if the signal is available where you are, regardless of whether or not you're using 5G.  
    https://appleinsider.com/articles/20/10/20/iphone-12-5g-indicator-denotes-best-available-connection#:~:text="What's weird is that when,in use," Bohn writes.
    I saw the article on having to choose 5G on, 5G auto, and LTE and also Data Mode of Allow more Data on 5G, Standard, Low Data mode. I put it on 5G On and Allow more data on 5G as soon as I got the phone, so those tests represent the highest setting I could do.
    I'm in a Washington DC suburb (very close the board of it). I'm getting the same amount of bars with my iPhone 12 Pro as my iPhone X with T-Mobile. It was showing about 125Mbps in Download but like 4Mbps (1st try)/ 25Mbps (2nd try) upload. Just ran speed test now and it is 32.3Mbps and 4.76 Upload....not so good....
    You may not actually be using 5G.  Apple made the decision to show the 5G symbol if the signal is available where you are, regardless of whether or not you're using 5G.  
    https://appleinsider.com/articles/20/10/20/iphone-12-5g-indicator-denotes-best-available-connection#:~:text="What's weird is that when,in use," Bohn writes.
    I saw the article on having to choose 5G on, 5G auto, and LTE and also Data Mode of Allow more Data on 5G, Standard, Low Data mode. I put it on 5G On and Allow more data on 5G as soon as I got the phone, so those tests represent the highest setting I could do.
    Regardless of the setting you chose, the 5G signal would have to be present for you to use it.  Your phone indicating 5G doesn't mean you're on 5G.  Even with 5G set to "on", if the signal isn't strong enough you could revert back to LTE.  As with protocols before it, 5G is subject to variables that cause it to vary in speed.  You can get 32d5u in one spot, 10ft over you could get 100d23u.  A single speedtest in a single location is not indicative of what you're going to get everywhere.  I'm TMob as well.  Home office 58d15u.  Kitchen 106d7u (what the hell 7u).  Garage 144d36u.  Sub6 5G is gonna basically be a little faster LTE.  
  • Reply 16 of 18
    StrangeDaysStrangeDays Posts: 12,208member
    All I know is i don’t have 5G options on my iPhone 12 despite being in coverage. From AT&T’s site it seems I have to change my plan to a new one with 5G service. Grr. They just don’t like making things simple. 
  • Reply 17 of 18
    dewmedewme Posts: 4,401member
    This is a pretty easy to understand overview of some of the problems that 5G technology was designed to address and how they went about solving them. 


    As you can see, it’s about more than just raw speed, but of course more speed is always better. 
  • Reply 18 of 18
    MplsPMplsP Posts: 3,683member
    All I know is i don’t have 5G options on my iPhone 12 despite being in coverage. From AT&T’s site it seems I have to change my plan to a new one with 5G service. Grr. They just don’t like making things simple. 
    While 5G may be the future, it's not a service you should be banking on taking full advantage of anytime soon. Rather, it's a service that will be rolled out gradually and in certain places -- which may not be where you live.
    Don't worry - it doesn't look like you're missing much! If I were you I'd just sit tight on your current plan and wait a couple years for 5G to be relevant.
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