Fifth Generation (5G) wireless technology coverage continues to expand worldwide. As of November 30, 2021, 112 countries have 5G networks, up from 99 countries in 2020. In the United States, every mobile carrier has launched some form of 5G, but not all 5G networks are equal. Different bandwidths of 5G support various network speeds, so even if one is connected to a 5G network, the experience in the U.S. may not reflect the lightning-fast speeds that have been promised with this generation of wireless connectivity.
As 5G expands through the United States, the speed of the connection is not keeping up. Though 5G is available in thousands of cities across the United States, the median download speed (93.73 Mbps) ranked last out of the eleven countries considered early launch markets in the third Quarter of 2021. South Korea held the top spot with a median speed of 492.48 Mbps. This lack of speed, however, could have something to do with the number of people per 5G base station. As of January 2022, South Korea had about 162,000 5G base stations serving 319 people per base station. In the United States, there were about 50,000 5G base stations that served 6,590 people each.
Beyond the number of people per base station, the different bandwidths that are available can also affect the speed of the connection. Low-band 5G extends the farthest of any of the bandwidths, but it is on par with 4G speeds. Mid-band 5G is faster, but has a shorter range, reaching only about a half mile from a tower. High-band “millimeter wave” 5G is the fastest, though its range is only about 800 feet from a tower. Though this version of 5G is what people expect all 5G to be, it is still only sparsely available in some big cities and specific places like stadiums and campuses.
However, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is working on expanding the availability. It has auctioned off close to 5 gigahertz of high-band 5G and is working toward updating infrastructure policy to support the deployment of 5G networks. Additionally, the FCC launched the 5G Fund for Rural America in October 2020 to support the deployment of 5G services in rural areas, including on Tribal lands, and to facilitate 5G networks for precision agriculture needs.
Though the rollout is still in progress and could take a while to be completed, 5G promises faster data speeds, lower latency, and more device connection compatibility. According to the FCC, “[P]owerful advances in connectivity made possible through 5G will enable uses ranging from telemedicine to helping communities manage local resources such as traffic signals and water supplies. 5G will support a growing number of connected devices expected to improve the quality and efficiency of all sorts of products and services consumers enjoy today. Other potential applications include augmented reality, virtual reality and self-driving cars.”