Why 5G is slow in the U.S. but will get better eventually

5G is here, sorta

5G experiences vary widely in the United States and speeds fall behind globally, but the situation will improve eventually. Here's why.

The next generation of wireless technology called 5G has finally arrived in the United States, laying the groundwork for innovations from remote surgery to self-driving cars to become part of everyday life. But for now, speeds are too slow in most areas to make those promises a reality. The United States delivers the slowest average speed among the 15 leading 5G markets.

The U.S. ranks 15th among leading 5G markets

Average download speed

4G

5G

South Korea

Saudi Arabia

Taiwan

Australia

Kuwait

Canada

Spain

Thailand

Switzerland

Hong Kong

United Kingdom

Italy

Netherlands

Germany

0 Mbps

100

200

300

400

Average 5G speed is only twice as fast as 4G

United States

0 Mbps

100

200

300

400

4G

5G

South Korea

Saudi Arabia

Taiwan

Australia

Kuwait

Canada

Spain

Thailand

Switzerland

Hong Kong

United Kingdom

Italy

Netherlands

Germany

0 Mbps

50

100

150

200

250

300

350

400

Average 5G speed is only twice as fast as 4G

United States

0 Mbps

50

100

150

200

250

300

350

400

4G

5G

South Korea

Saudi Arabia

Taiwan

Australia

Kuwait

Canada

Spain

Thailand

Switzerland

Hong Kong

United Kingdom

Italy

Netherlands

Germany

0 Mbps

200

400

Average 5G speed is only twice as fast as 4G

United States

0 Mbps

200

400

And until there is more demand for 5G, wireless providers are reluctant to spend billions of dollars to upgrade their networks with new antennas and towers. To understand how 5G will improve, you have to understand how portions of spectrum differ and the complex process underway to allocate additional spectrum for wireless carriers.

Types of spectrum

The full electromagnetic spectrum is grouped into different bands, such as lightwaves and microwaves. Each of these bands have different characteristics that make them ideal for specific purposes.

Low-band spectrum, with frequencies below 1 GHz, have coverage areas that can span miles but have download speeds that are closer to current 4G LTE speeds. This is the base layer that allows wireless carriers to show maps with 5G reaching huge swaths of the country.

High-band spectrum, often referred to as wideband, can transmit a lot of data quickly over very short distances. It requires many more antennas to maintain greater reach. This spectrum is best suited for cities, though it can be obstructed by buildings and trees.

How far can spectrum reach

700MHz

333 times farther than high-band or hundreds of square miles

Low-band

850MHz

277

Mid-band

2 GHz

120

3.5 GHz

30

2.5 GHz

93

high-band

Shorter distances under a mile

Low-band

700MHz

333 times farther

than high-band or hundreds of square miles

Mid-band

2 GHz

850MHz

120

277

3.5 GHz

30

2.5 GHz

93

high-band

Shorter distances under a mile

Low-band

700MHz

333 times farther than high-band or hundreds of square miles

850MHz

277

Mid-band

2 GHz

120

3.5 GHz

30

2.5 GHz

93

high-band

Shorter distances under a mile

Mid-band spectrum is the sweet spot in the middle that has a desirable mix of faster speeds than low-band but can reach distances of several miles.

Data from OpenSignal shows that high-band spectrum delivers speeds on average 100 times faster than lower bands serving most of the country. In fact, the speed of your home office wifi might just be faster depending on where you live.

How much faster is high-band?

High-band

Mid and low-band

Wifi

200 MHz

400

600

High-band

Mid and low-band

Wifi

100 MHz

200

300

400

500

600

High-band

Mid and low-band

Wifi

200 MHz

400

600

The mix of spectrum available for wireless carriers across these three bands directly impacts the speeds delivered to consumers.

So far, the 5G offering in the United States has been a trade-off between speed and coverage due to the spectrum holdings by mobile carriers.

Verizon leads with high-band spectrum holdings, while competitor T-Mobile holds more of the desirable mid-band spectrum.

The auction concluding this year was a rare instance to boost mid-band spectrum holdings and mobile carriers bid a record $78 billion.

Total spectrum allocated to leading wireless carriers

low-band

mid-band

high-band

T-Mobile

AT&T

Verizon

0 MHz

600

1,200

1,800

low-band

mid-band

high-band

T-Mobile

AT&T

Verizon

0 MHz

200

400

600

800

1,000

1,200

1,400

1,600

1,800

low-band

mid-band

high-band

T-Mobile

AT&T

Verizon

0 MHz

600

1,200

1,800

Verizon spent $45.4 billion on licences to bolster its mid-band spectrum holdings but did not overtake T-Mobile, whose mid-band holdings were previously boosted by the merger with Sprint.

Mid-band spectrum acquired in the auction this year

Change in total mid-band spectrum

T-Mobile

Verizon

AT&T

100 MHz

200

300

T-Mobile

Verizon

AT&T

100 MHz

150

200

250

300

T-Mobile

Verizon

AT&T

100 MHz

200

300

Mobile carriers are placing big bets on 5G through the acquisition of additional spectrum and it is unclear how these investments will pay off. Even after acquiring rights to spectrum, carriers then have to invest in towers and infrastructure.

Why spectrum allocation is complicated

Spectrum regulation dates back to the early 1900s and has evolved as new technologies have emerged. Because the amount of available spectrum is finite, it is carefully allocated by governments, often via auctions for private use, and its use is highly regulated.

Additional spectrum could eventually be made available as part of the infrastructure bill working its way through Congress. The legislation proposes funding for the Department of Defense to research spectrum sharing and to make available additional spectrum licenses in late 2024.

But according to Moffett, the rollout of 5G is a chicken-and-egg problem. Until there is a network, self-driving cars and remote surgeries will not happen. But until there is a business case for 5G networks, wireless providers are slow to spend money building antennas and towers.

For consumers, the promise of 5G is still a ways off. Even as the technology evolves, your experience will depend on where you are and the type of spectrum you can access.

Additional data reporting by Jitesh Chowdhury

Edited by

Matt Weber and Lisa Shumaker