What is the point of 5G in a country that has coverage problems?

People are complaining that the latest iPhones can’t support 5G, a high-speed cellular data standard that uses high frequencies and therefore will presumably require new antenna and radio circuits.

I am not sure what the point of 5G is in the US, though. The range and ability to transmit through walls, rain, etc. is inferior with 5G. The problem with the US is not that the 30-50 Mbit speeds in areas with good LTE (4G, sort of) coverage are not fast enough. It is that the speed in a lot of places is 0 Mbps (i.e., there is no coverage).

Readers: What will be the practical advantage of 5G over LTE?

Separately, if 5G does prove useful, will 5G make our traffic-choked suburbs even less attractive compared to cities? If carriers didn’t want to invest in good LTE coverage for American suburbs why would they build 5G towers every 1,500’ in medium-density environments?

22 thoughts on “What is the point of 5G in a country that has coverage problems?

  1. 5G has nothing to do with range. You can run 5G on 700MHz, you can also run 5G on 28GHz (what Verizon calls mmWave). 5G on the same frequency will be faster and more reliable than LTE.

  2. 5G is a marketing scam to make money off a completely unnecessary upgrade cycle, and named 5G because 5 comes after 4. (And you can bet there will be a 6G in a couple of years.)

    Couple of points:

    1) T-Mobile says that 5G will never help non-urban areas


    2) Why 5G is a scam


    3) Australia’s 4G network is already faster than 5G…so why do we want something that requires more cells with less capability?


    Bottomline, we’d be much better off with fiber to the home, and an upgraded 4G network.

  3. Apple bet on the wrong horse (Intel, which had bought Infineon’s cellular chip business, formerly Siemens). Intel was a complete failure at developing a 5G chip and Apple had to grovel back to Qualcomm. That said, Qualcomm’s current Snapdragon X50 is a 5G-only chip, unlike the upcoming X55 which is 4G+5G, and adding both a 4G and a 5G chip in a phone means seriously compromised battery life, for little benefit since 5G deployments are still in their infancy. That’s why the 5G iPhone will be introduced next year. If they miss next year as well, however, iPhone 12 sales will tank.

    5G promises better latency, higher throughput and more density. The latency improvements are modest, though, the higher throughput requires upgrading the “backhaul” connection between cell towers and the backbone network, and that is going to take some time as well. The biggest benefit is that it makes more efficient of scarce and expensive spectrum, but that only applies once 3G or 4G spectrum is “refarmed”, i.e. reallocated to 5G only use.

    Carriers hope 5G will open up new uses for Internet-of-Things and automotive applications, but I’m skeptical. One important use case is as a replacement for fixed broadband. I am moving from San Francisco to London, and UK “broadband” is horrendous, basically crummy DSL deceptively advertised as “fibre” with the full complicity of the Advertising Standards Authority. Three UK just launched 5G broadband service in my neighborhood, where you get 200Mbps 5G home broadband for the same price as British Telecom’s garbage VDSL service (40Mbps at best).

    There’s no reason why that wouldn’t work in the US, where most of the population is urban, contrary to conventional wisdom. Verizon has been selling off its landline assets to the likes of Frontier, so they would no longer be cannibalizing their own revenue by introducing 5G fixed broadband. Anything that can loosen Comcast’s monopoly is a good thing.

    • Too many errors to correct them all. Let me address just 2:

      1) 5G promises better latency – this is complete bullsh*t. Once the radio is spun up and a connection opened, latency is completely defined by the distance between the cell phone and the server. You can’t change physics. Latency will not be improved by 5G.

      2) Carriers hope 5G will open up new uses for Internet-of-Things and automotive applications — they keep tossing this out as a new use for 5G, but this too is complete BS.

      IOT – most IOT applications use very little bandwidth. Think about a Nest device. What does it need to send, 10 bytes of temperature data once a minute and receive maybe 10 bytes of commands? And for higher bandwidth needs, the IOT devices will typically be near wifi (which has higher bandwidth than 5G) or hard wired via Ethernet.

      Cars – one would never every use 5G, or any “G” for that matter, to do car automation. What happens when you live in the hills, go around the corner, and the signal disappears? No, you’ll do as all cars do today, the software will be running on the car. (and no you don’t need 5G for updates…you do that at home or can do it over 4G just fine). There’s also a claim that you need 5G for car coordination and this too is BS…you’d be better off creating a local mesh network, possibly in coordination with a carrier signal, but 4G will be plenty fast enough for the control sequences.

      3) The other 5G talking point is “you’ll be able to download a whole movie in 6 seconds”. I’m sorry, but you can’t watch a movie any faster that you can today, regardless of the technology. And as for streaming, I can watch streaming TV on the ferry from Sausalito to San Francisco on my phone today with 4G, and I’ll never be able to do that with 5G because the signal won’t go that far.

    • @FL
      As I mentioned, I am skeptical of carriers’ rosy forecasts on IoT and automotive applications. Fixed wireless broadband is a godsend in countries with broadband oligopolies like the US or UK. Here is the service I was referring to:

      Regarding latency, processing delays in the radio interface do contribute to latency. The current pre-standard 5G deployments actually use 4G to initiate connection to the cell tower and this non-standalone operation means no latency benefits. The current 5G networks still deliver 24-30ms latency vs. 40-50 for LTE (but AT&T’s LTE-Advanced is closer to 30). Whether that matters compared to the Internet round-trip time is debatable, but it’s still an improvement.

    • “The current 5G networks still deliver 24-30ms latency vs. 40-50 for LTE (but AT&T’s LTE-Advanced is closer to 30)”

      Latency between your phone in San Francisco and and the X-BOX servers in Seattle is on the order of 100ms to 200ms round trip depending on the speed of your service. 10ms (do you have a reference for that claim?) is an improvement, but it’s not enough to notice. And it certainly isn’t an “order of magnitude” as Trekker claims, nor does it magically make “online gaming viable”.

    • Fazal,

      Most of the population of any developed country is urban. A lot turns on how you define rural, we have a pretty rich spectrum of population density, but a relatively small percentage of the population lives in Tokyo/Seoul/Hong Kong-like density.

  4. The issue with 5G as deployed in the US (in the 30GHz band) is that those high-frequency signals literally can’t punch their way out of a paper bag, and are thus only effective outdoors with clear line of sight. Unlike us, the Chinese don’t have their military hogging prime spectrum and are using the 3.6GHz band. While it doesn’t have the same bandwidth, it is actually usable indoors and deployable today, with much better economics. There is a new cold war around 5G standards brewing, and the IEEE predicts we will lose:

  5. The media is overplaying the bandwidth angle of 5G. The major improvement is latency.

    In the same frequency bands, 4G and 5G are both near the Shannon Limit. 5G gains the ultra high bandwidth in the new available bands that have poor coverage.

    On the latency side, 5G can drop latency by an order of magnitude and be used for latency sensitive applications. Online gaming becomes viable with 5G.

    • “On the latency side, 5G can drop latency by an order of magnitude and be used for latency sensitive applications.”

      I’m sorry, what? How does 5G improve latency?

  6. The big players push 5G for a few reasons, mostly business model ones.

    On my Spectrum home Internet, wired to the house “fiber” connection (but copper to the house), I can buy up to 1 gb a sec, but I only pay for and need about 200 mb a sec. No data limits on gb downloaded, I don’t remember the upload limit, but I doubt I’ll hit it. With AT&T, if I did not have a separate U-Verse or DirectTV package with them, I was capped at 1 tb a month, and charged per extra gig. With wireless, I’m capped with AT&T no matter what. We pay for 60 gig a month as a family, and use almost all of it some months. Big phone companies WANT to move to 5G to get us back into a pay per gb model, like long distance was just in the 1970’s and 1980’s., which was pay per minute They sell us the features and higher speeds in urban areas, but in the end they have three goals, more revenue, lower costs, and more profits for shareholders. More revenue is achieved by charging per gb. They will justify it in the beginning because they “need funding” to build out their network. Lower costs are achieved by no longer having to pay “linemen” to maintain wired networks in urban and suburban areas. I think 5G “may” be useful in centralized urban settings, but I think it will be yet another tech promise unfulfilled for the rest of us. Sadly, wifi might have been able to achieve that promise, but hackers basically forced us all to close our wifi hotspots, except to those we can trust. Will the same not be true for 5G?

  7. I had not seen 5G connectivity on my iPhone Xs around home in Iowa. I was just in Alaska earlier this month, and lo and behold, my iPhone reported 5G connectivity! In Alaska! I did not expect that.

    Since I was mostly out and about enjoying Alaska, and not surfing the web on my phone, I could not say if the 5G connectivity was any better or worse than my usual 4G connection.

    • It’s not 5G, it’s AT&T pretending they have 5G when it’s really just 4G (LTE-A)


      “For AT&T, the “5G Evolution” technology actually refers to existing 4G (LTE-A) technology improvements that it has rolled out in hundreds of markets. While AT&T is slowly rolling out a genuine 5G network, it isn’t usable by smartphones at all, but can be used by the Netgear Nighthawk Mobile 5G Hotspot.

      AT&T was attacked on social media and in marketing efforts by its rivals in using the connectivity icon, with claims it was misleading customers. Critics suggested the logo may confuse customers who may believe they are connected to a 5G network, when in fact they are not, and may not even be able to connect to a genuine 5G network using the device in the first place.”

  8. > I am not sure what the point of 5G is in the US, though.

    I could not agree more. It’s being foisted on us. Especially in the age of climate change and the Sixth Mass Extinction, 5G is not something we should be doing.

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