5G is no reason to buy the iPhone 12 - or any phone

Sorry, but 5G will not be giving your new iPhone, or any other 5G capable smartphone, super Gigabit speed almost anywhere.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

You couldn't be blamed if you watched the iPhone 12 release commercial -- excuse me, media event -- and thought you'd soon be getting Gigabit speeds from 5G.  No, you're not. Most of you won't see one byte worth of a faster connection. Only T-Mobile customers may see speeds boosts into the 100 Mbps range. Gigabit? Forget about it!

That's because Verizon's 5G claims -- that over 200 million people in 1,800 cities around the US can get 5G -- are nonsense. In fact, the National Advertising Review Board  told Verizon in September it had to stop claiming it's building "the most powerful 5G experience for America." 

In fact, Verizon' is years away from delivering on its crazy fast 5G promise. And, I speak as a happy Verizon customer. They simply can't do it.  

Their marketing mouth is making promises that their 5G technology can't keep. Here's why.

Verizon's high-speed 5G promises are based on millimeter-wave (mmWave). This is what Verizon calls 5G Ultra Wideband. Regardless of the name, it runs on 24 and 28 GHz bands. Guess what? At those frequencies, it has a range better measured in yards than miles. Its range is much more like Wi-Fi than it is 4G. 

Besides its limited range, it has no penetration to speak of. Your house's walls will block it. Leaves can block it.  Even your window can stop it when it's down. The only way you'll see 5G inside your office is the same way you get Wi-Fi in it: By filling it with access points

Must read:

What about 5G in your car? To maintain your connection, you'll need a cell tower with a clear line of sight to your car every couple of blocks. Then, each of those towers will need an ultra-fast optical internet connection to deliver the bandwidth. 

T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray nailed it when he wrote mmWave 5G  "will never materially scale beyond small pockets of 5G hotspots in dense urban environments." Sure, he wants to sell you a different kind of 5G, but he's not wrong either. You will never see ultra-wideband, super-fast bandwidth on the highways, in the suburbs, and the countryside.

So, how can Verizon be making claims that it can reach 200 million users? After all, according to OpenSignal's June 2020 5G report, T-Mobile users connected to its 5G network 22.5% of the time; Sprint, now owned by T-Mobile. 14.1%; AT&T 10.3%. In last place, by a gigantic margin, Verizon's users connected to its 5G network just 0.4% of the time.

Verizon is using marketing to paper over a technology hole. Verizon will be using Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) to share its existing 4G spectrum with 5G. So, yeah there will be much broader "5G" coverage, but greater speed? Verizon's Heidi Hemmer, VP Technology even admitted recently it's DSS 5G speeds won't be that much different than its 4G speeds.

What you will see out in the woods with your T-Mobile iPhone 12 is low-band 5G. This works on the 600 MHz spectrum, aka the old UHF TV channels 38-51. With this T-Mobile can cover hundreds of square miles with speeds from 4G LTE's 20+ Mbps and can reach real-world speeds of over 100 Mbps. 

Generally speaking, though, what you can expect to see from T-Mobile is a lot more coverage and that is no small thing for those of us who live in the countryside. But, if you already get good 4G where you live, you really don't need to switch up.

There's one other real 5G variant, midband. It runs between 1 GHz and 6 GHz. It comes with more coverage and penetration than mmWave. But, it's also not widely used yet in the United States by anyone. T-Mobile is aggressively working to change that by using the 2.5 GHz range it got from Sprint. Outside the US, however, when people talk 5G, they're usually talking about midband at 3.5GHz

So, what can you really expect in the States? I'll quote PC Magazine's comprehensive September 2020 speed test of the major wireless networks: 

AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon take very different approaches to 5G. To make a long story short, AT&T 5G right now appears to be essentially worthless. T-Mobile 5G can be a big boost over 4G, but its speeds are only what we'd expect from a good 4G network—it isn't a new experience. Verizon's 5G is often mind-blowing, but very difficult to find.

In other words, if you want to buy an iPhone 12 to get faster speeds than you've ever seen before from a smartphone, you're wasting your money. You're also throwing your cash away if you want to get one today to "future-proof" your phone for 5G. By the time, if ever, 5G becomes truly valuable--again except for rural users--you'll be wanting to buy an iPhone 14 or 15. 

Editorial standards