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American Cell Phone Carriers Are Terrible and 5G Isn't Magically Going to Save Us

The US lost the race to fast, affordable 4G. The wireless industry now wants the public to believe that 5G will be a silver bullet.

by Karl Bode
Jun 5 2019, 1:30pm

Image: Cavan Images via Getty

A lot of the hype surrounding fifth-generation (5G) wireless is focused on the idea that deploying 5G is some kind of “race.” A race, we’re told, the United States absolutely must win or risk losing its position as a global leader in wireless networks.

Except if you look just beneath the marketing hype, you’ll quickly find that America isn’t much of a leader when it comes to fast, affordable wireless. Americans pay some of the highest prices for wireless service in the developed world, and a new study suggests US consumers receive slower service than a long line of other countries in exchange.

A new report by Opensignal finds that while the United States ranks 5th in terms of fourth-generation (4G) availability, we’re ranked an underwhelming 30th in terms of average download speeds worldwide.

Using crowdsourced data, the firm conducts 3 billion individual measurements every day from tens of millions of smartphones worldwide. For this study, Opensignal examined data collected from user mobile devices across 87 different countries worldwide. Carriers were then ranked based on video quality, latency, and down and upstream speeds.

The study found that US smartphone speeds “have improved little” in the last year, rising from 17 Mbps to 21.3 Mbps between the first quarter of 2018 and the same point in 2019. The study was quick to highlight how states like California and Washington—often lauded as US “technology leadership hubs”—lag well behind other states in broadband speeds.

“California, home to both Silicon Valley and the movie industry, ranked just 19th in Download Speed Experience while Washington state, home to Amazon and Microsoft’s HQs, ranked 16th,” the study found.

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Opensignal unsurprisingly predicts that speeds will improve with the arrival of 5G networks, but consumers will only really care if those networks are “superior to what is possible with the older 3G and 4G technologies that remain in wide use,” the firm said.

But there’s a problem when it comes to fixating exclusively on speed when trying to determine whether the US is winning the “race” to deploying 5G.

Surveys routinely indicate that service price, not speed, is the biggest consumer annoyance when it comes to wireless data. A recent survey by PC Magazine, for example, found that when consumers were asked about their biggest concern with 5G, 77 percent were most concerned about high prices or usage restrictions (bandwidth caps, overage fees).

Yet so far, wireless carriers are making it very clear they’re hoping to charge more than ever for 5G.

Verizon, for example, imposed an additional $10 surcharge just to connect to 5G networks before consumer backlash forced it to temporarily shelve the effort. Sprint’s new 5G network is ridiculously fast, but “unlimited” connections cost $80 per line and come with a 100 GB usage cap—which if exceeded will result in your connection being throttled to 2G speeds (128 kbps).

Consumer experts say the blind fixation on speed often distracts the public from the high cost of wireless service and the competition and policy issues that have caused the US to lag behind.

“I have never seen an international comparative study that put the United States in first place on anything in terms of wireless broadband,” Electronic Frontier Foundation lawyer Ernesto Falcon told Motherboard in an email.

Falcon argued that 5G isn’t magic, and the only thing that truly drives faster speeds, better coverage, and lower prices is competition. That’s a problem in a wireless sector where just a few companies enjoy regional monopolies over the fiber lines that power cellular towers. It’s a problem that may get worse should T-Mobile’s $25 billion merger with Sprint be approved.

“With all of the mergers and acquisitions along with an absence of policy effort to keep the market competitive, I doubt any new technology will result in positive changes for consumers,” Falcon said. “It’s market competition that delivers these benefits, not advances in technology.”

The recent death of net neutrality also complicates 5G’s promise, experts say. In addition to your high monthly bill, carriers impose all manner of bizarre restrictions on user connections to generate even more revenue. Verizon’s unlimited data plans, for example, require consumers pay notably higher prices to get HD video to work. 4K video is banned entirely.

Consumer experts say that between the death of net neutrality, ongoing consolidation in the space, and a Trump FCC widely seen as a mindless rubber stamp for the wireless industry, there’s a perfect storm brewing that will hamper the real-world consumer benefits of 5G.

DC policy makers need to focus not just on “winning a purported race to 5G but preventing a race to the bottom among merger-happy wireless carriers,” Matt Wood, General Counsel for consumer group Free Press, told Motherboard.

“But what's really been overstated to even greater degree is the notion that we need to win a global race to a new wireless standard in order to have any innovation here in the good old US of A,” Wood said.

Both Falcon and Wood argued that if the US really wants to win a race, it should be a race toward competition, lower prices, and less mindless industry consolidation. Instead, the US seems focused on a race it can’t win, especially if the focus is fattening the revenues of industry giants eager to use the rise of 5G to justify even higher prices.