The Embarrassing State of 5G

Dieter Bohn of the Verge reviewed the new Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, a product name which I would mock except its main competitor is the Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max and I can’t decide which superlative-laden branding is worse. Bohn is generally positive throughout the review, but this part caught my attention:

I tested two networks in New York City: T-Mobile and Verizon. As of this writing, AT&T 5G should work on the S20 Ultra but has not yet been officially certified. The S20 Ultra did its end of the job with 5G, happily downloading bits as quickly as the network was able to deliver them.

On T-Mobile, I saw 5G speeds that ranged from barely better than LTE all the way up to 120 Mbps, which is quite fast. On Verizon, once, I found a street corner with 5G (no easy feat), and I got download speeds between 800 and 1,400 Mbps, which is stupid fast. However, I could also walk 50 feet, and the 5G signal would drop. Or I could just turn around and put my body between the phone and the cell tower to slow down the signal. I could even simply stand in one spot and wait, and 5G would occasionally drop.

That’s the state of 5G right now. It hasn’t lived up to the outsized promises that have been made about it for the past couple of years. It may someday, but the buildout is going to take much longer than we’ve been led to think.

Pundits have been claiming for years, even just last week, how critical it is for Apple to ship a 5G iPhone sooner rather than later, but reviews like these make clear that 5G simply isn’t ready for mass adoption yet. This is not a knock against Samsung — while its strategy of being first at all costs doesn’t appeal to me, it’s something that many people like and I get that. But it is foolish to claim that it is imperative that new smartphones are 5G capable, and particularly the iPhone, lest any of them fall behind in a race that doesn’t exist.