Long before New Zealand’s network operators upgraded their first cell sites to 5G, it was obvious everyday mobile users wouldn’t notice much change.
The technology promised and delivered faster data. On paper that’s a good thing. In practice there are few mobile phone apps that need faster data than 4G can handle. Not to mention 4.5G or any of the subsequent updates.
Take video streaming. That’s arguably the most data intensive handheld phone application. On a good day you could make decent video calls using the earlier 3G mobile standard. Likewise people would watch video clips of overseas sports events on mobiles during their commute well before we got 4G.
Higher streaming performance
It’s fair to say streaming video performance and user experience noticeably improved as mobile technology moved from 3G to 4G and it got better again as 4G evolved.
Few people noticed an improvement in mobile streaming video performance as 5G towers came online. Human nature says that when a journalist writes a sentence like the last one, there will be people who say they did notice a difference.
If that is the case, these people will be outliers. Please get in touch if that’s you.
It’s true to say large data files download faster when a mobile is connected to a 5G tower. It takes less time to download an UHD movie or a vast data set.
Yet, a mobile phone is not the best device for enjoying the UHD experience. You’d want a big screen for that and, chances are, that big screen is either connected, or otherwise close to a fixed broadband connection.
Likewise, even premium phone handsets are not the best devices to process a vast data set. While you could find yourself in a remote paddock and need to use a tethered phone to download data to a laptop, it turns out few remote paddocks are served by New Zealand’s 5G networks.
Almost everywhere there is 5G, there is decent fixed broadband.
There will be a handful of New Zealand users downloading or uploading large data sets in places without access to fixed broadband networks but with a 5G connection.
These people will have seen a minor benefit, their data transactions might take two minutes instead of four or five minutes.
That’s nice, but it isn’t earth-shattering or ground-breaking. It’s not what the 5G sales hype promised.
Another much-touted benefit of 5G is lower latency. As with data speed, a good test case of whether this makes a difference is video calling. Did anybody notice a difference in latency when comparing their 4.xG video calls and their 5G ones?
Latency is an issue for keen mobile phone gamers. Lower latency is cool if you’re playing a fast moving game. But, it would be tragic if that was the most tangible visible consumer benefit of a mobile phone technology upgrade that cost billions.
While gaming in general is popular, the fast action mobile games that require 5G’s low latency remain a niche activity.
Capacity - now you are talking
Telcos and 5G boosters are on safer ground when talking about the technology’s extra capacity. A 5G mobile tower can handle many more simultaneous connections than older cellular technologies.
That means with 5G there are fewer occasions when you can’t make a call or get data because the network is congested.
Apart from googling player statistics mid-game while sitting in a 40,000 crowd at Eden Park or attempting to call Mum after a severe weather event, New Zealand hasn’t had many occasions where mobile networks were congested enough for consumers to notice.
Even so, that lack of congestion at times of need is a tangible benefit of 5G that every mobile phone user can appreciate.
Fixed wireless broadband
The area where 5G has the greatest potential to make an impact for consumers is with fixed wireless broadband. In time 5G could make a huge difference to rural homes and businesses.
There are places in New Zealand where customers can buy a 5G fixed wireless service, but, for now, it remains a tiny fraction of the market.
The latest Measuring Broadband New Zealand report from the Commerce Commission notes there are nine users with measuring probes who are on 5G fixed wireless plans. That’s not enough to collect meaningful performance data yet.
Spark, One NZ and 2degrees all have marketing for 5G fixed wireless plans. None of the marketing mentions specific speeds, although they do say 5G fixed wireless is faster than 4G.
Anecdotally customers see speeds of “up-to” 100 mbps. This sounds good, but before 4G fixed wireless towers were congested there were customers who reported speeds of over 80 mbps. And that underlines an issue with any fixed wireless connection, the speed depends on how the service provider manages access.
What was all the fuss about?
At this point, you might ask yourself why telcos went to the expense and trouble of building 5G networks. The simple answer is it cuts their costs.
On a per user basis, a 5G network is cheaper to operate than a 4G one. The technology is easier to maintain and more reliable. It’s not sexy. That’s something that is hard to sell to consumers, but makes a huge difference to telcos.
There’s much more to this. The additional capacity may not be a pressing matter in New Zealand right now, but in time there will be more connections and 5G gives carriers headroom to cope with future demand. There may be future apps that can use the speed.
The 5G network will get used, it will make money
Over time 5G fixed wireless broadband will get better. It will never compete with fibre for the most demanding customers, but it is more than enough broadband for the majority of users.
And there are other ways telcos can make money from 5G, it is possible to operate private networks using the technology. While the Internet of Things can use low-bandwidth connections, any IoT app that uses video will benefit from moving to 5G.
The reason you didn’t notice the 5G revolution was because it didn’t deliver the pizazz that came with earlier mobile technology upgrades. All the best things happened in the background, out of sight. Any improvements in the mobile experience were, at best, incremental, and taken for granted by consumers.