Apple and Verizon say 5G is here - but that's not exactly true
By Cat Zakrzewski
The star of this year's Apple iPhone event was 5G, the next generation of wireless technology expected revolutionize phones by bringing faster connection and processing speeds.
"Today is the beginning of a new era for iPhone," Apple Chief Executive Time Cook said as he unveiled the first 5G-capable iPhones.
"5G just got real," Verizon Chief Executive Hans Vestberg said onstage as he touted his company's plans to double its availability in some cities and roll out to 60 new markets by the end of 2020.
But in reality, 5G remains a work in progress throughout the United States.
Access to 5G networks is limited to a handful of U.S. cities, and in some instances, it's currently slower than 4G speeds, The Washington Post's Geoffrey Fowler has found through tests with multiple phones. And The Post has noted that the fastest early deployments have been concentrated in areas most Americans aren't visiting very much since the pandemic began - like stadiums.
"It will likely be a few more years before we see what kind of revolution 5G will bring about in the tech world," Stan Adams, the deputy general counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said in an email.
The future of 5G hinges on a smart government allocation of a scarce resource - airwaves.
Washington policymakers broadly agree that 5G is important - especially when it comes to the United States maintaining its tech dominance and competing with China, which has aggressively embraced the next generation of wireless networks. But there are competing proposals for how the federal government could most quickly and effectively commercialize the most valuable airwaves.
Many experts say the future of 5G depends carriers having greater access to airwaves known as mid-band spectrum, which is ideal for 5G deployment because it provides both fast speeds and greater coverage. But much of that is controlled by the Pentagon, which currently uses the spectrum for radar and aviation. And the future of those airwaves is in doubt.
Last week, the Pentagon drafted a request for proposals for a new military cellular network that would lease extra capacity to private companies, such as phone companies, as the Wall Street Journal's Drew FitzGerald has reported. But at the same time, the Federal Communications Commission is planning to allow telecom companies to bid on licenses for them through an auction in December 2021.
Democrats are criticizing the apparent conflict: Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., recently called the Trump administration's spectrum policies "incoherent and erratic" in a letter seeking more information on the Pentagon request. And the cell carriers are aggressively lobbying against the military proposal.
The release of more 5G-capable phones, such as the latest iPhone 12, could increase pressure on policymakers to act.
Samsung has been making 5G-compatible phones, but Apple's entry to the market could make it a must-have for more American consumers. People eager to have faster download speeds may be disappointed to learn that the United States trails other countries that have invested more in 5G.
Opensignal, a network analysis firm, recently said the overall download speed experience of Americans with 5G phones was just 33 Mbps, the second-slowest in the world.
It's also possible that the increased spotlight on 5G could make it a more important political issue. Candidates making last-minute efforts to appeal to rural voters who lack as many internet options may also see this as a key way to make an appeal during the pandemic.
But analysts say consumers' 5G experiences will be very inconsistent for now. It might benefit some consumers who live in downtown corridors where Verizon is aggressively deploying 5G if they're interested in tasks that require strong download speeds, such as mobile gaming. But upgrading to a 5G phone won't make a huge difference for the vast majority of Americans this year.
"If they're in an area where they just have access to that low-band 5G, it's not going to be so life-changing for them," said Doug King, director of business development at RootMetrics.com, a network-analysis firm owned by IHS Markit.
The Washington Post