AT&T and Verizon had big 5G-related announcements this week:
AT&T published speed test results which apparently validated its ?5G E? LTE network as the fastest, and Verizon, which apparently validated its ?5G E? launched its 5G network in parts of Chicago and Minneapolis.
But these two announcements underscore just how messy 5G is right now. AT&T's results appear to be skewed in the company's favor, and Verizon's rollout looks lumpy, with poor coverage even in the areas Verizon promised.
These are just the latest headaches for 5G, which has been hit by deployment delays , limited hardware testing , conflicting standards , political disputes and more.
With telcos rushing to be first, odds are that the 5G mess will only get worse as deployments continue.
If people's first experiences with 5G are so bad, why should they trust, and pay more, for the networks when they actually arrive for real?
Take AT&T. The company apparently scored a victory this week by announcing that recent Ookla speed tests found its 5G E network (which, again, is LTE, not 5G) to be the fastest in the U.S., which boosted the company's message that the 5G E brand will help cement AT&T's reputation ahead of its actual 5G launch later this year.
But those results aren't as clear-cut as I'd have AT&T believe: Ookla says the increase in results for AT&T is due to an increase in speed testing by iPhone users after the release of iOS 12.2, specifically on the iPhone XR. XS Max, XS, X, X, 8 and 8 Plus, which are the same models that now show 5G E logos after that update.
AT&T'S NETWORK LOOKS FASTER BECAUSE MORE IPHONE USERS, CONFUSED BY THE NEW LOGO, HAVE TESTED IT
Ookla believes that AT&T's recent speed increase is simply the result of iPhone users seeing the new 5G E logo and retesting their devices to satisfy their curiosity, skewing AT&T's average speed results with an influx of newer device testing.
In other words, AT&T's network appears faster as it had more high-speed devices running speed tests to account for its average than competitors.
It's sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy: by having iPhone users question their network, AT&T was able to increase its average speed by adding an influx of new data to its sample that its competitors didn't have, thus making the lie that 5G E Is somehow better than LTE an apparent mathematical reality.
Now, those speeds aren't completely misleading: Ookla says that, overall, speeds on the 5G E devices were actually faster than AT&T's average speed, which makes sense since these are the devices that are designed to take advantage of the LTE-Advanced innovations AT&T is using here.
But these latest tests do not prove that AT&T's speeds are faster on average, and other results such as the recent study from OpenSignal from before the release of iOS 12.2, show that AT&T's 5G E is actually slower than T-Mobile and Verizon. The readers of Verge on Twitter have also shared similar poor results; It's certainly not representative of all users, but it's definitely not the kind of first impression AT&T wants attached to its 5G brand either.
Things don't necessarily get better when you get to actual 5G, as Verizon showed us this week during its actual 5G launch.
In its testing in Chicago my colleague Chris Welch found that real 5G will offer dramatically better speeds at speeds between 400 and 600 Mbps for downloads.
(Those are the kinds of numbers AT&T's 5G E network can only dream of.) But the network itself is extremely spotty.
When Verizon says only "select areas" will get 5G, it's no joke: service was inconsistent. Even when Verizon offered 5G, it often appeared and disappeared from block to block.
That's a problem. Verizon may have technically launched its network first, but if it can't deliver widespread or consistent service, it's just that: a technical achievement with no real practical application.
Verizon's rush to be first seems to come at the expense of a reliable 5G network, something early adopters (who, remember, are paying an additional $ 10 per month) will have to contend with, while Verizon gets more substantial coverage.
Verizon tells me that the 5G indicator only appears when there's an active data connection. If you're standing in a 5G area but your phone is idle, it'll show 4G.
Verizon?s 5G network is blazing fast, but it barely exists
Finding 5G coverage in Chicago, one of two launch cities, is a serious challenge
To add to the confusion: Verizon says 5G status icon will only appear when you are actively using 5G.
That means you could be standing in a 5G location and not even know it unless you are actively using your phone.
It's the opposite of the AT&T issue. Verizon seems content to hide the fact that you have real 5G until you actually test the speed for yourself.
I can't understand why Verizon would do this, unless the goal is to keep the actual size of their 5G networks as vague as possible. That actually seems plausible, given the inconsistencies Chris noted in his testing.
5G HYPE IS OUTPACING TECHNICAL DEVELOPMENTS IN NETWORKS
All of this adds up to one of the biggest problems with 5G: the hype is outpacing the technical developments of the networks.
It may not seem so bad, given that cellular companies love to promote their products and services, regardless of how they relate to actual real-world results.
But the stakes are higher with the launch of 5G, and if AT&T and Verizon (as well as T-Mobile and Sprint, which appear to have made the right call by delaying their launches to clarify details) can't actually deliver.
As for things, they will end up with disappointed customers once they discover that the reality does not live up to the promises they received.