Is 5G worth it? Consumer hype is over, and carriers worried


When 5G was first launched, the big question for smartphone users faced with the prospect of replacing their devices to use it was: Is 5G worth it?

The huge popularity of 5G devices seemed at first to indicate a resounding yes, but there are now concerns that the novelty has worn off, and that many are still seeing little real-life difference between 4G/LTE and 5G speeds …

5G was hyped as one of the biggest developments in mobile tech for many years, with promises of gigabit speeds. Sales of 5G smartphones showed that consumers were sufficiently excited about the tech to upgrade, and Apple’s adoption of 5G for the iPhone 12 was thought to be key to the popularity of the lineup.

However, real life didn’t quite live up to the hype. In my own tests with the iPhone 12, I found that while isolated 5G coverage occasionally offered broadband-like speeds, coverage was sporadic.

At 22:58, two bars of 5G provided a completely unusable download speed of less than 1Mbps, and a decidedly average 11Mbps upload.

Two minutes later, just a couple of hundred feet away, two bars of 5G have been replaced by four bars of 4G and we have a much more respectable 33Mbps up/17Mbps down.

Moving only a handful of steps got me four bars of 5G, with the kinds of speeds most people would be happy to see on their home broadband connection: 196Mbps up, 86Mbps down.

This kind of variability is the norm, not the exception. Indeed, sometimes standing still at the exact same spot saw huge differences within minutes. From what I have seen, it’s signal strength, not 5G versus 4G, which is the greatest determinant of speed. The one exception is that only full-strength 5G gets you the kind of broadband-like speeds we’ve been promised.

Two years and two iPhones later, things haven’t changed dramatically.

Is 5G worth it? Consumers no longer so sure

The Financial Times reports that consumer demand for 5G has reduced.

Even in south-east Asian markets, which have rolled out 5G much faster than most European and North American countries, consumer demand for 5G smartphones has just begun to taper off. In the second quarter of this year, there was a 7 per cent drop in shipments of 5G devices, to 24.5mn, according to a recent report by Canalys, a firm that analyses tech markets.

“The hype for 5G has dwindled, and demand has shifted to more practical aspects of smartphones such as battery life, storage, processor speed, and camera quality,” says Chiew Le Xuan, an analyst at Canalys. “Everyone is feeling the pinch and the practical uses of 5G have yet to be seen.” He argues that, in the vast majority of cases, 4G speeds are sufficient for everyday use.

Carriers worried about recouping their investment

Mobile carriers collectively spent hundreds of billions of dollars on buying 5G spectrum and creating 5G infrastructure, and the FT says that many are now worried about whether that investment will pay off.

Anxiety is mounting about whether enough people will pay for the services they have invested so heavily in […]

With intense competition keeping the prices of 5G products down, operators are trying to claw back some of their infrastructure investment by coaxing consumers on to higher tariff bands that offer more data. But the global cost of living crisis may undermine that strategy, especially given that the new products mostly offer only slight advantages over the old.

The big fear is that the 5G experience will mirror that of 4G/LTE. There, carriers spent huge sums of money to upgrade their networks, but found that consumers weren’t willing to pay a premium for it. The real beneficiaries of LTE were companies like Apple, Google, and Netflix, which could now offer higher-quality streaming through the faster speeds, without picking up the tab.

What’s your view?

What’s been your experience of 5G? Have you seen dramatically improved speeds matching the hype, or have the improvements been more modest? Do you or would you pay a premium for 5G? Please take our poll, and share your thoughts in the comments.

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