World’s first 5G networks remain patchy as telcos struggle to move as fast as smartphone makers

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Published: June 14, 2020 11:42 AM

Smartphone makers have swept in with a flood of 5G devices this year, with Samsung Electronics Co., Huawei Technologies Co. and Xiaomi Corp. all pushing the new technology without asking for much higher prices or design compromises.

5G is an impressive upgrade for most consumer applications.

Fifth-generation networking hype has been in full force since Qualcomm Inc. declared “5G is here, and it’s time to celebrate” in February of last year. The reality, however, has required patience from consumers due to the time needed to roll out the new networks and the dearth of applications to put additional speed to compelling use. A year after South Korea launched the world’s first full commercial 5G network and months after China opened the world’s biggest, Bloomberg News reporters tested the leading carriers in both countries to see how far 5G has gotten. Tests in Hong Kong and Tokyo showed similar results — gaps in coverage that could leave most early adopters waiting for networks to reach full speed.

Smartphone makers have swept in with a flood of 5G devices this year, with Samsung Electronics Co., Huawei Technologies Co. and Xiaomi Corp. all pushing the new technology without asking for much higher prices or design compromises. Millions of 5G phones have already been sold, and for the billions of people not yet on the bandwagon, the new wireless standard will soon be the default option anyway.

Carriers aren’t moving quite as fast. They’re investing billions of dollars to set up and expand their 5G networks, but the technical design of this new standard demands high network density to provide the advertised stratospheric speeds. Once they have enough masts in place, they aim to recoup the initial costs by offering more bandwidth-hungry add-ons, such as Nvidia’s GeForce Now game-streaming service, which SoftBank Corp. launched in Japan on June 10.

Where it’s available, even without hitting its max theoretical speeds, 5G is an impressive upgrade for most consumer applications. For example, at a gigabit per second (1Gbps), a user could download a 9-hour audiobook in less than 1 second, according to Fastmetrics, a U.S.-based internet service provider. Even at 1/10 of that speed, 100 megabits per second, a 45-minute TV show takes only 16 seconds, Fastmetrics estimates.

Carriers in North America, Europe and Australia have also set up 5G, with so far underwhelming results for consumers. In March tests conducted by RootMetrics in the U.S., the choice appeared to be between fast speed with negligible availability — Verizon Wireless Inc. recorded a max speed of 846Mbps with 3.1% availability in Chicago — or wider availability without much of a speed bump — T-Mobile US Inc. covered 57% of Washington but at a less impressive 148Mbps.

To test download speeds and coverage, we sent four reporters out into Seoul, Beijing, Tokyo and Hong Kong with 5G phones and speed-measuring apps. Here’s what those tests showed:

Seoul

Carrier – KT Corp.

Fastest Download – 1.2Gbps

Typical Speed – 500Mbps

Spectrum – 3.5GHz

Coverage – Most of Seoul is covered, though 5G drops inside many buildings or on bridges. KT offers a coverage map showing access zones in the city.

KT, the No. 2 South Korean carrier, has improved 5G service since the commercial debut in April 2019, though it still lacks the high-frequency airwaves necessary to reach top download speeds in the range of 20Gbps. SK Telecom Co., the country’s largest carrier, achieves a download speed of 1.5Gbps inside its headquarters, which drops to 1Gbps in the same building’s lobby.

KT’s average 5G data speed ranges between 800Mbps to 1Gbps, the company said in an email. “It is hard to simply compare data speeds in South Korea, which has nationwide services, with other countries that only have test services or have services in a few cities,” the company said.

Beijing

Carrier – China Mobile Ltd.

Fastest Download – 546Mbps

Typical Speed – 525Mbps

Spectrum – 2.6GHz, 4.9GHz

Coverage – Parts of downtown lack 5G coverage, though that’s improving fast.

In Beijing, tests using a Huawei P40 Pro phone showed 5G service was consistent enough to play high-definition (1080p) video while riding in a car. There was no 5G signal inside the subway and the shopping mall in Guomao, where luxury brands from Tiffany to Vacheron Constantin are sold. Most of the Zhongnanhai district, home of the central government, has no 5G coverage, according to a map provided by China Mobile.

A China Mobile representative in Beijing emailed a video showing download speed exceeding 1.1Gbps at Beijing Daxing International Airport. The representative had no further comment.

Hong Kong

Carrier – China Mobile

Fastest Download – 620Mbps

Typical Speed – 342Mbps

Spectrum – 3.3-3.5GHz, with 4.9GHz in some areas

Coverage – Connection and speed were consistent in most outdoor areas of Hong Kong’s Central District. Services dropped to 4G in many indoor spots and in residential areas.

Tests using a Huawei P40 Pro showed streaming of high-resolution 4K video was smooth outdoors even in a moving vehicle. The fastest download speed was recorded in the carrier’s flagship store in the city’s central business district.

The carrier expects its 5G network to “penetrate deeply” in Hong Kong, Alex Cheng, China Mobile principal engineer, said in an email.

Tokyo

Carrier – NTT Docomo Inc.

Fastest Download – 1.4Gbps

Typical Speed – 700Mbps

Spectrum – 3.7 GHz, 4.5 GHz

Coverage – As of the end of May, 15 locations in Tokyo offered 5G on Docomo’s network. There’s also a smattering of coverage in about a dozen other prefectures plus Osaka and Kyoto.

At two locations in the city, the 5G signal was strong inside the Docomo shop but became unstable a short distance away from it, using a Samsung Galaxy S20 phone and Netflix’s speed test app. Both of Tokyo’s main airports, two Olympics facilities and Tokyo Sky Tree are among the covered spots. Two more waves of 5G network expansion are planned by the end of July and end of October, the carrier said. “The initial rollout is going as planned,” Docomo said in an email.

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