Why 5G users are having buyer’s remorse

Some users found data consumption on 5G appeared to be much higher. Photo: Bloomberg
Some users found data consumption on 5G appeared to be much higher. Photo: Bloomberg

Summary

  • 5G phones accounted for 30% of all smartphones sold in India in the festive quarter ended in September.

Phone users who rushed to upgrade to 5G services, dazzled by commercials of ultra-fast networks, are beginning to have doubts. According to some users, while speed tests show marked improvement in bandwidth and latency, the difference is barely noticeable in actual use. But most believe that their data consumption on 5G appears to be much higher than before.

Consider the case of Varun Krishnan, founder of a tech blog called FoneArena, who is using Airtel’s 5G network in Chennai. According to him, the number of spots with 5G coverage in the city has increased in the past two weeks, but a simple speed test seems to be consuming nearly 1GB of data on 5G.

Aditya Kshirshagar, who lives in Bengaluru, has had a similar experience. He says he used up 4.8GB by conducting eight speed tests on the 5G network, which he got momentarily.

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Bandwidth and latency are two measures of a network’s capacity. The former shows how much data can travel over a network at a time, while the latter measures the time taken for data to travel from source to receiver. Measured in milliseconds (ms), latency is the minimal delay in transferring data from a company’s server to a user’s device. Lower the latency, the faster the data transfer. Latency, and not bandwidth, is what users typically refer to as ‘internet speed’.

Several users who upgraded to 5G in the past few weeks took to social media to report the lack of discernible difference between 5G and 4G while sharing screenshots of 5G download speeds measured on apps such as Ookla and Fast Speed Test.

“5G on Airtel in Delhi. But it is erratic, in some areas, despite showing a 5G connection, the speeds can be just 8-10Mbps," tweeted Shamit Manchanda, a New Delhi-based architect, on Tuesday.

Airtel claimed on 2 November that it surpassed 1 million customers on its 5G network.

Meanwhile, photo blogger Ayush Pathak tweeted on Thursday that he is getting downlink bandwidths of 290 Mbps on Airtel 5G in Delhi’s Pitampura area on a Samsung Z Flip 4 smartphone.

Industry experts aren’t surprised. They point out that 5G is designed to provide more capacity or bandwidth to accommodate growing data traffic due to the increase in online streaming and gaming, which explains the higher data consumption.

“With 5G, early users have said that they are seeing data bandwidth of up to 1.2Gbps, which in turn means that most internet-dependent services will adaptively keep upgrading the quality of stream or content depending on the kind of internet access that you have," said Prashant Singhal, emerging markets leader, technology, media and telecom, EY.

Singhal said adaptive optimization happens in the background, which means users would not know that more data is being consumed.

“As a result, plans with more data capacity will be there in some form—all of which equates to an eventual increase in tariff for the telecom sector," he added.

According to various Reddit posts, users in the US had similar experiences when 5G was introduced. Specifically, on the matter of speed tests, websites that provide the service are designed to download and upload data to measure speeds. These tests last for about 15-20 seconds, and more data is sent and received as the bandwidth grows.

5G, according to various speed tests, provides as high as 700Mbps bandwidth to users. Since India’s 4G networks are running at full capacity right now, bandwidths on such tests per user are between 30-100Mbps, and hence use less data. A typical test on 4G should show around 52MB of data consumption.

Further, experts also pointed out that erratic 5G speeds and higher-than-expected latency are due to the lack of 5G infrastructure in place.

“These are still pilot launches. It takes time for operators to mature their networks and backhauls. 5G also requires telcos to deploy more base stations than 4G. Network expansion and optimization will take time," said Jayanth Kolla, co-founder and partner at Convergence Catalyst, a tech consultant.

One of the user complaints is that even in cities where 5G has been rolled out, the services are available only in some areas. This can be attributed to the lack of an adequate number of base stations—a transceiver on mobile towers that connects wireless devices to the internet or other devices.

One of the key benefits of 5G is the ultra-low latency of 4-5ms, compared to 4G’s 20 ms. Experts say as telcos migrate from non-standalone (NSA) 5G networks to standalone (SA) 5G, these benefits will also become visible.

Barring Jio, all other telcos are offering 5G on NSA. In NSA, 5G networks run on existing 4G infrastructure. Whereas, in SA, both RAN (radio access network) and core are upgraded for 5G, which allows operators to offer benefits such as five times higher throughput, six times faster access to the 5G spectrum, lower latency, and improved network capabilities.

“Latencies will decrease with the rollout of faster 5G networks across India, and this will make the network more compelling over the next 12-18 months. The differences may not be as apparent as in the next six months when standalone networks roll out," said Nishant Bansal, senior research manager, telecom, Asia-Pacific, IDC.

Bansal pointed out that in Gurugram, the data bandwidth on 5G networks is around 300Mbps. However, there is an improvement in network latencies — for instance, in live-streaming sports, 5G streams in India are slightly faster than streams on 4G. “There will be a benefit in the latencies over the previous generation 4G network, but it will only be evident in live game streaming or streaming high-resolution content—such as 4K or 8K — on the go," he added. Experts cautioned that 5G is meant to bring key benefits to enterprises, which in turn, will benefit users in the long run, but as far as general internet usage is concerned, there may be no change.

Though users in India have been buying 5G smartphones, many are still to get an update. Apple confirmed that beta versions of its 5G software started rolling out to iPhones on Thursday, while large-scale rollouts are expected in December. Other smartphone makers, too, have said that support for 5G on their ‘5G ready’ devices should be available from December. According to a report by Counterpoint Research, 5G smartphones accounted for 30% of all smartphones sold in India in the festive quarter, which ended in September.

Spokespeople for Airtel and Jio did not respond to an email query sent by Mint till press time.

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