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If you think 5G is overhyped, wait till you meet 5.5G

Less than half of next gen networking users say it has improved speed or reliability for them

Fewer than half of 5G users say they've experienced improvements in speed or reliability over 4G according to a new survey, but that is not going to stop some in telecoms pushing ahead with efforts to deliver an enhanced version branded 5.5G.

The survey comes from comparison service Uswitch, which says that upwards of 16 million people in the UK now own a 5G-enabled handset, but experiences with the network standard are mixed. While some feel their service has got better, only 41 percent of 5G users indicate it has improved speed or reliability for them.

Uswitch said the survey results came from a sample of 2,000 adults across the UK.

There also appears to be digital divide between urban and rural users, with some in the countryside saying they have never been able to get a 5G connection, despite having a 5G-enabled handset. According to Uswitch, 17 percent of rural users with a 5G phone said they have never had a 5G service, compared with 6 percent of those in built-up areas.

One in six mobile users feel 5G technology is “overhyped”, which perhaps isn’t surprising as the technology is still relatively early in its deployment and is being compared against much more mature 4G networks.

In fact, as far as the UK goes, 5G services are still effectively being delivered by bolting 5G radio antennas to the same network infrastructure used for existing 4G services. Many of the key abilities of 5G, such as ultra-low latency, very high data rates or the ability to support many more devices per cell than with 4G, are only likely to be realized with upgrades to the infrastructure.

“After the promise of 5G delivering ultrafast speeds to our mobiles, it’s no wonder that many consumers still don’t understand what the fuss is about when compared to their everyday experiences,” commented Uswitch’s in-house telecoms expert Ernest Doku.

According to Doku, 5G should be capable of delivering a top speed of 20Gbps, and while consumers are unlikely to see those speeds in practice, tests suggest that it can be at least 20 times as fast as a 4G network.

“But it’s important to remember 5G was first trialled in the UK just three years ago, so this technology is really still in its infancy. We’re still only scratching the surface of what it can do,” he added.

Gartner director analyst Bill Menezes agreed, telling The Reg: “As the carriers continue updating their networks for 5G Standalone technology, users will increasingly experience the promised improvements in speed or reliability. But that will take time. It takes about 3-5 years to fully roll out a new mobile tech generation and we’re only a bit more than two years in.”

Kester Mann, analyst at CCS Insight, also agreed, telling us that “There’s little doubt that 5G has so far struggled to meet the sky-high expectations set by the telecoms industry. That could change when the technology is more widely adopted by businesses, but the dearth of new applications and services specifically for the consumer market has been a major disappointment so far.”

PP Foresight analyst Paolo Pescatore said that many consumers are instead placing greater value on their broadband connection into the home, given the growing importance of connectivity for the entire household.

“It is apparent that some users do not have the desire for 5G, when 4G networks still do the job for what they need. Fundamentally, users want robust and reliable connectivity everywhere,” he said.

Meanwhile, some vendors are already looking beyond 5G.

This week, Huawei’s executive director David Wang gave a speech at the Global Mobile Broadband Forum extolling the virtues of 5.5G, and urging others in the industry to help prepare to “make the leap to 5.5G.”

According to Wang, 5.5G networks will be capable of delivering 10Gbps experiences, supporting hundreds of billions of connections, and “help us achieve native intelligence”, whatever that is.

To get there, the mobile industry first needs to set the standards, and Wang said that Huawei and others must work together to ensure that [3GPP] Release 18 is “frozen by Q1 2024”, as planned.

But some things about 5.5G sound familiar. It will call for mmWave frequencies, and “operators will need to acquire over 800MHz of spectrum from this band if they are to realize 10Gbps experiences,” Wang said.

However, 6GHz is also being considered as a potential band for 5.5G, according to Wang, which may cause issues in countries like the US where the entire 6GHz band has been made available for unlicensed use and is already being used by Wi-Fi 6E kit, with WiFi 7 to follow.

“We can also refarm the sub-6GHz spectrum to achieve ultra-large bandwidth for 5.5G,” Wang added.

But delving a little further, it appears that 3GPP Release 18 is already being branded as 5G Advanced by others in the mobile industry, such as Nokia and Ericsson. So what is Huawei up to by talking publicly about 5.5G?

“It kind of feels like Huawei has lost the battle and is seeking to disrupt the market by owning 5.5G,” said Pescatore, who added that it “seems more a marketing ploy given its own struggles, for obvious reasons.”

Menezes was even more blunt, telling us “As for 5.5G, that’s something the vendors want the carriers to care about. Users can safely ignore it.” ®

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