After years of hype, 5G making progress in the US

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Bob O’DonnellSpecial to USA TODAY1:021:20

FOSTER CITY, Calif. — Given all the time that most of us have spent at home recently, it’s easy to lose sight of advances in technologies like 5G that are generally more useful when we’re out and about.

However, just as municipalities around the country have used reductions in traffic to speed up road improvement projects and other infrastructure enhancements, so too have several of the U.S.-based telco carriers been working to bring 5G to life sooner than originally anticipated.

Just last week, AT&T announced that it had achieved nationwide coverage for its 5G network, joining T-Mobile, who reached that important goal last December. In both cases, the companies are using what’s called “low-band” frequencies to achieve these nationwide networks. The reason this matters is that cellular signals which are transmitted at these lower frequencies (600 MHz for T-Mobile and 850 MHz for AT&T) are able to travel long distances. This means you can create a bigger network with fewer cell towers.

The problem is that the width of the “lanes” used to transmit data at those frequencies are very narrow, which means that the speeds you can get while using them are not much different from 4G. Needless to say, that’s certainly not what we were led to believe 5G was going to be able to do.

You can get significantly faster 5G download speeds using a technology called millimeter wave (mmWave), which transmits data at much higher frequencies (such as 39 GHz) and, most importantly, offers significantly wider “lanes” for data traffic. The problem with mmWave is that the signals don’t travel far (think, roughly a city block), and they’re highly susceptible to interference, including things like windows, walls, and even other people.Get the Talking Tech newsletter in your inbox.

If you can get mmWave 5G service (which all three major US carriers have enabled, but only in a few cities around the country), it can deliver download speeds that are 50x faster than 4G. The huge caveat, however, is that you have to be outside, not moving, with few people around and located in the right section of the cities where the service is turned on.

In real-world tests of Verizon’s 5G network, which only uses mmWave, a measurement company called Open Signal found that people were actually only getting 5G service 0.4% of the time. If you’ve spent a lot of money on a 5G phone, that’s probably not going to make you very happy.

The most interesting near-term options for 5G are around what’s called “mid-band” spectrum, which means radio frequencies in the roughly 2.5-3.5 GHz range. Thanks to its acquisition of Sprint, right now T-Mobile is the only U.S. carrier that is using these frequencies, although both AT&T and Verizon have talked about using them at some point in the future.

The quality of 5G service when using these mid-band frequencies turns out to be a very solid compromise of good coverage (although not quite as wide as the low-band frequencies) with traffic lane sizes that should accommodate a very respectable 10x speed increase over 4G.

In addition to basic frequency developments, the carriers have also been working on other enhancements to their 5G networks. AT&T, for example, announced about a month ago that they have turned on a technology called DSS (Dynamic Spectrum Sharing), which allows 4G and 5G phones to use the same frequencies. Practically speaking, that means AT&T can use some of its huge range of 4G coverage to also carry 5G signals, which can lead to both better coverage and faster download speeds.

T-Mobile, for its part, is moving aggressively towards deploying what’s called 5G SA (Standalone) Mode. Basically, this means all aspects of the network—both the wireless connection to the cell tower and the internal “core” network that carries the data to and from various websites – are optimized for 5G. Practically speaking, this will translate into another feature that’s been long-promised for 5G – reductions in what’s called latency, or lag time. Up until now, all 5G networks have been in NSA (Non-Standalone) Mode, which mixes together 5G radio connections with 4G core networks.

Practically speaking, this means that response times for 5G phones haven’t been any better than 4G phones. 5G SA-based networks, however, can offer a 40% improvement in latency, which, for an application like mobile gaming, could mean the difference between being able to shoot a monster or getting eaten by one.

In addition to network improvements, there have been a number of new 5G phones brought to market recently across a much wider range of price points, from $500 to well over $1,500. In addition to current offerings from Samsung, LG, and OnePlus, next week Samsung is widely anticipated to introduce several more 5G-capable phones. Apple will also be bringing the first 5G-capable iPhones to market in October based on hints from its recent earnings call.

From a pricing plan perspective, the good news is that most carriers are not charging any kind of premium for 5G, although their range of plan options for 5G phones are typically limited to somewhat pricier unlimited plans.

The bottom line is that we are much closer to a good quality 5G experience in the US than we’ve ever been. After years of hype around the subject, it’s nice to see some of the early promises start to come to life. Plus, the good news about wireless network enhancements is that many of them will quietly improve over time, which will bring better performance to the 5G phones you can buy today or in the near future without you having to do anything.

That’s a concept I think we can all get behind.

USA TODAY columnist Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, a market research and consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. His clients are major technology firms including Microsoft, HP, Dell, Samsung and Intel. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech. The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.