5G is a necessary and transformative technology, you'll get no argument from me. It's going to allow our cellular networks to scale to previously unimaginable levels, and connect everything from traffic lights to tractors to truck assembly plants in the process. But if you're like me, you probably know 5G first and foremost as the next generation of wireless connectivity for your smartphone. That also overwhelmingly remains the core purpose of almost any 5G deployment on earth right now, aspirational IoT marketing aside. And here's the thing about those networks: they're fairly awful to actually use right now.
Having switched between a number of 5G-ready phones and the two meaningfully extant 5G networks in the US (sorry, Verizon — if I can't see it on a 50 mile scale map, it isn't real coverage), I can say confidently that the only thing 5G has succeeded in accomplishing is making my phone less reliable and more aggravating. I considered saying 5G has succeeded in making my phone more of a shithead, but that seemed a bit immature, and I definitely don't want to come off as immature on the Internet.
As 4G truly began to spread, the question "Why do you have a smartphone?" became "Why don't you?"
To be sure, this isn't the first time a generational network leap came with growing pains. If you remember the transition to early LTE — and boy do I ever — you know exactly how bad it was. Terrible battery life and constant issues switching between 3G and 4G for data made the first LTE smartphones downright bad to own. But, they came with a truly tantalizing silver lining: usable video streaming over mobile data. In my mind, it wasn't simply the iPhone that pushed the smartphone into hypersaturation — mobile media consumption was a massive driver for the everyday consumer, and 4G enabled an explosion of that consumption. You no longer had to download all of your media at home, and you weren't locked out of apps like YouTube and Netflix at work anymore. Hell, you could even tether your laptop and have a usable high speed data connection anywhere your phone had coverage. LTE was worth all that pain because the payoff was transformative. As 4G truly began to spread, the question "Why do you have a smartphone?" became "Why don't you?" — a moment in smartphone history that's easy to miss in the shadow of the (still very important) early 2G and 3G iPhones.
On T-Mobile, files actually download slower on my phones over 5G than they do over 4G.
5G, though, paints a far more nebulous picture of the future. Carriers and tech companies have tried to latch onto themes, to be sure: near-instantaneous file downloads, ultra low latency gaming, AR and VR, and multi-gigabit wireless home broadband have all been on offer as potential fulfillment of the standard's promise. None have meaningfully materialized, though, nearly two years after the first commercial 5G network deployments began. Instead, my experience has been one that, at times, is markedly worse than even our existing 4G networks. On T-Mobile, files actually download slower on my phones over 5G than they do over 4G. Latency can be totally ridiculous, too, with pings over 200ms at times — 400% worse than what I typically experience on 4G, and that's being conservative. On AT&T, 5G data is typically no faster than 4G… assuming it works at all. My Note20 Ultra frequently just loses data connectivity when on AT&T's 5G for no apparent reason, while all things in the status bar report A-OK. Toggling airplane mode often resolves the issue, but it's an unwelcome flashback to those early LTE days I was promised would be consigned to the history books. Even when 5G does work on AT&T, I'll frequently experience strange delays in the connection actually responding, resulting in apps like Twitter spinning for five seconds or more as they attempt to refresh their data. Slack often just gives up entirely. I haven't had such issues consistently on 4G in years.
The state of 5G right now is all pain, no payoff.
You may already be ready to protest — “my T-Mobile 5G works perfectly fine, I don’t know what you’re talking about” — and I’ve heard such sentiment on social media from time to time. But my colleague Ryne Hager complains of similar issues with T-Mobile’s 5G network in Boston, where he experiences even worse speed disparities than I do. 4G is often twice or three times as fast as 5G for him, and 5G service can be so slow that it borders on unusable in anything but ideal conditions. “For me, I'm better off without 5G entirely,” he says, adding that he generally just disables it on his phones and chooses to use 4G because it offers faster speeds. This has also been borne out in independent testing. Surely, our 5G maladies are likely tied up in a mess of factors: local coverage, still-being-figured-out issues at the network level, and second generation radios in current 5G handsets still being pretty new technology. No doubt, 5G will get faster, more reliable, and less finicky. It will eventually be good. But as far as I'm concerned, the state of 5G right now is all pain, no payoff. And who wants that?