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Why the arrival of 5G means the 4G experience is getting better

Even if you sit out this big tech upgrade, you can enjoy the enhancements 5G is bringing to the good old 4G network.

Here’s what being an early adopter of 5G is like: I huddle in a doorway on The Terrace, downloading a Netflix movie while I try to avoid Wellington’s infamous wind whipping my phone away.

The movie downloads in less than 90 seconds. That’s blazingly fast – Vodafone’s new 5G network gives me connection speeds peaking at 460Mbps (megabits per second), typically 8-10 times what I get on the 4G network.

But as I walk towards Cuba St, I slip out of 5G coverage. There are less than two dozen 5G cell sites enabled in Wellington. Others in Auckland, Christchurch and Queenstown similarly cluster around the CBD. So, 5G is a patchy experience, literally.

Near Te Papa, I find 5G coverage again, but the download speed is less impressive – about 200Mbps. Speed is the major touted benefit of moving to 5G, the fifth generation of mobile networks.

As well as faster downloads, you’ll enjoy more capacity in the network, which helps when the airwaves become crowded with people making calls and posting Instagram updates. Hardly anyone is using 5G, so early adopters get a lot of expensive networking equipment to themselves.

Fast downloads are really the only aspect of 5G to get excited about currently. Uploads are a different story. Vodafone’s 5G network is what’s called “non-standalone” 5G. That’s a combination of existing 4G infrastructure and the new 5G cell sites, a sort of transition stage before we move to true standalone 5G, probably a year or two away.

Data uploads on 5G actually happen over the 4G network, which typically gives you upload speeds of 30-50Mbps. For that same reason, the other major selling point for 5G – what Vodafone calls “near-zero lag” when playing games and streaming video – is still out of reach. I was getting a lag of about 50 milliseconds (the length of time to send data from my device to its destination) in my testing, the same as using the 4G network.

Eventually, that lag will be reduced to just a few milliseconds, opening up intriguing options for entertainment, smart cities and industrial uses. But for now, the gap between the reality and the promise is huge.

There’s also a premium to pay for that speed advantage. A 5G-capable Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ will cost you $2199 versus $1899 for the 4G version. Samsung’s Galaxy A90, which I’ve been using, costs $1399. Other handsets will hit the market in the coming months. Vodafone is offering 5G as a free add-on to existing mobile plans until June 30, but after that it will cost an extra $10 a month.

With those fast downloads, you might also have to upgrade to an unlimited mobile data plan, which costs $80 a month with Vodafone. That doesn’t allow tethering, so you won’t be able to use your 5G phone to supply internet access to your other devices.

It really isn’t worth the price of admission until 5G coverage is fleshed out and compelling uses for it emerge. But the advent of 5G still benefits the rest of us laggards a generation behind.

The mobile-network operators are investing to improve coverage and capacity in their 4G networks to aid 5G performance. That means the 4G experience is getting better, with expanded coverage and more capacity. Vodafone and Spark have also recently enabled a technology that allows for better-quality voice calls.

VoLTE (Voice over Long Term Evolution) sends your mobile voice call via the 4G network, rather than the 3G network. It can mean clearer calls that connect more quickly and you are more likely to have a better experience if you are surfing the web or using apps while you are on the phone. Again, you’ll need compatible hardware to make it work, which will involve buying a new VoLTE or getting a software upgrade to your existing phone if it is compatible.

So, even if you sit out this big tech upgrade, you can enjoy the enhancements it is bringing to good old 4G, which will be around for many years to come.

This article was first published in the January 18, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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