By now, the cellular industry’s rollout of 5G networks is three or four years old. And while the industry is still hunting for that killer use case that will cement 5G’s place in the highest echelons of cellular technology, the generation is doing, at its core, what it was supposed to do—sort of.
5G networks are continuing to deliver better and faster service than 4G in general. Compared with 5G service from a year ago, however, the networks’ upload and download times have generally declined around the world, according to speed-test data from the network diagnostics company Ookla. Even the most robust 5G networks are barely cracking 1 gigabit per second, well short of the International Telecommunication Union’s stated ideal download speed of 20 Gb/s.
Part of the problem is the same problem had by every cellular generation. These are the normal growing pains as more customers buy new phones and other devices that can tap into these networks. “You look to 4G and we had the same,” says Mark Giles, an industry analyst at Ookla. “So with initial deployments of 4G, there was a lot of capacity to soak up those early users. And then as more and more users come on, that capacity gets used up, and you need to look at densification.”
Failing to build out millimeter-wave networks hasn’t helped 5G through its growing pains.
Giles points out that most network operators began their 5G rollouts by deploying non-standalone 5G networks. In these instances, the 5G network is built on top of the existing 4G network’s core infrastructure. While non-standalone 5G isn’t expected to perform as well as the alternative—standalone 5G—it is much cheaper and easier to deploy because it doesn’t have to be built out from scratch.
This strategy has hampered 5G deployments because operators are limited to building 5G networks wherever they have existing cell towers and other infrastructure. But cost isn’t the only factor. There are also regulatory and permitting problems that operators are running up against. Particularly in dense urban areas, sometimes the biggest challenge is simply finding a spot to put a new cell site in the first place.
Outside of cities, different problems are taking root. A big selling point for 5G is the ability to tap into new bands of spectrum, most notably the millimeter-wave band (24 to 40 gigahertz), which can support lower latencies and greater data rates. The caveat of all higher frequencies, however, is that they don’t travel particularly far. That’s great for cities, less so for the suburbs or rural areas. As more people in more places start using 5G networks, there’s some degradation in network performance to be expected, in aggregate, because of that fact.
Millimeter-wave has also seen barely any uptake outside of a handful of countries, including the United States, and even there it’s been limited. Companies like Verizon—initially bullish on millimeter-wave—have instead pivoted to other newly available bands, most notably the C-band (4 to 8 GHz).
As of 2022, “140 operators in 24 countries have millimeter-wave licenses,” says Giles, citing data from the Global mobile Suppliers Organization (GSA). “But only 28 in 16 countries are actually deploying it. So it’s a small group. It’s a very small fraction of operators actually going after it.”
The aspirational 5G download speed of 20 Gb/s originally cited by the International Telecommunication Union is still just that—aspirational.
Millimeter-wave is seeing some limited use in areas that have massive congestion—think sports stadiums and airports. But failing to build out millimeter-wave as a broader backbone component of 5G networks, regardless of whether it’s too expensive or technically limited, hasn’t helped 5G through its periods of growing pains.
Of course, coverage is not universal. Especially as the technology behind cell networks becomes more complex, the theoretical maximum download speeds become harder to realistically attain. The aspirational download speed of 20 Gb/s cited by the ITU is just that—aspirational. “You’re never going to see that kind of performance. That’s like with as much spectrum bundled together, in a highly capable device, totally stationary, no one else on the cell, clear day with the perfect conditions,” says Giles.
What’s more attainable is what the ITU has set as the “user experience data rate,” which the organization said should be 100 megabits per second down and 50 Mb/s up. By that metric, even though speeds have degraded in the past year, the median 5G network experience in many countries still meets that benchmark from the ITU.
The amount of 5G performance degradation isn’t consistent from country to country, and there are a handful of countries bucking the general trend. Ookla’s speed-test data identifies four: Canada, Italy, Qatar, and the United States. That said, Giles doesn’t believe that means there’s necessarily any common denominator between them.
For the United States, Giles suggests, more availability of new spectrum has so far helped operators in the country stay out ahead of growing congestion on the new networks. In Qatar, by contrast, the massive investment around the 2022 FIFA World Cup included building out robust 5G networks.
It’s too early to say whether or how 6G development will be affected by 5G’s early stumbles, but there are a handful of possible impacts. It’s conceivable, for example, given the lackluster debut of millimeter-wave, that the industry devotes less time in terahertz-wave research and instead considers how cellular and Wi-Fi technologies could be merged in areas requiring dense coverage.
“I think it’s revealing the disconnect between the vision for these Gs and what’s actually on the ground,” Giles says. “I think that’s what this degradation is really highlighting.”
Michael Koziol is an associate editor at IEEE Spectrum where he covers everything telecommunications. He graduated from Seattle University with bachelor's degrees in English and physics, and earned his master's degree in science journalism from New York University.