5G Was an Overhyped Technology Bust. Let’s Learn Our Lesson.

We can't trust companies to be honest about how today's buzzy technologies, including artificial intelligence, driverless cars and the metaverse, will or won't change our lives.

The Washington Post

June 13, 2023

5 Min Read
5G and 4G chips racing each other
Getty Images

I want to flash back to a recent technology that has turned out to be mostly hot air. It is a warning about inventions that promise to change your life.

Starting about three or four years ago, America's big phone companies and smartphone manufacturers, including Apple, wouldn't shut up about 5G, the next generation of cellular internet networks.

"We're only in the early innings of 5G, but already its incredible performance and speed have made a significant impact on how people can get the most out of our technology," Apple CEO Tim Cook said in 2021.

AT&T, Verizon and other American phone companies blanketed us with commercials that bragged how 5G would make your phone faster and better and help physicians spot cancer earlier.

You might have a 5G phone now. I do. Did it make a significant impact in my technology experience? Nope. (You might even want to turn off 5G because it can drain your phone's battery. Stay tuned for a tip on that.)

5G might be a bigger tangible benefit to you down the line. It was also an inevitable and necessary advance - albeit an incremental one. And that's okay.

What wasn't okay was the corporate 5G hype that treated us like goobers who fall for any promise of new and awesome tech.

One lesson is that we can't trust companies to be honest about how today's buzzy technologies, including artificial intelligence, driverless cars and the metaverse, will or won't change our lives.

Related:Apple Extends Broadcom Pact With Multibillion-Dollar 5G Deal

There were two problems with 5G: At first in the United States, it didn't work as advertised.

People who tested 5G service found it was sometimes available on just a block or two or was slower than 4G cellular networks in places. Companies sometimes said we were getting a 5G connection when it was the same old 4G service.

The second problem is now that 5G service is more broadly available in the United States, lots of us who have 5G can't really tell the difference.

Yes, it's true that a phone connected to a 5G network can theoretically download a full-length movie in seconds rather than many minutes. 5G can in principle also speed up the response time for devices connected to a network. That means a driverless car or robotic surgical arm is able to respond to commands more quickly.

But the real world impact of 5G shows that technology improvements on paper aren't always relevant to you. There are lots of reasons your phone might flake out on your family FaceTime call. Having a 4G connection instead of 5G is almost never the issue.

The technology is fine. The marketing pitches were a mistake.

Related:The Future of Connectivity: Innovations in Networking, Cloud, and 5G

I want to acknowledge that some people are winning from 5G now. In places where conventional home internet service is unavailable or shoddy, a 5G connection can be an alternative. Some companies are building their own 5G networks for tasks in which super fast reaction times are useful.

But the bottom line: Most of you haven't really benefited from Apple, Samsung and phone companies trying to persuade you to buy a new phone or upgrade your cell service just to get 5G.

Your next phone will be capable of connecting to 5G, and probably your phone service will be, too. Great.

You shouldn't have to think twice about the number of Gs, just like you probably don't care that your next smartphone will have a more advanced computer chip brain.

Those incremental improvements that make technology better, faster and cheaper is how invention works in real life.

(Well, about that cheaper thing: Chetan Sharma, a telecommunications analyst and consultant, estimates that Americans are paying about $7 billion to $8 billion more per year on their phone bills from people switching to higher priced unlimited 5G data plans.)

We and companies that make technology must acknowledge that not every new technology changes our lives - at least not in a way that makes for a compelling science fiction movie.

How will you feel about new forms of artificial intelligence that mimic human writing if the killer use turns out to be automatically generating a zillion versions of Instagram ads?

What if the big deal about computers in vehicles turns out not to be cars that drive themselves but driver-assistance technologies that help you brake in an emergency or parallel park?

5G was an incremental technical improvement that companies tried to tell us was a revolutionary leap. It wasn't.

As I mentioned, some people have found that their phone battery drains faster when the device is connected to a 5G network.

If you have a 5G-capable phone and service and you're bothered by the battery life, consider turning off 5G. Your phone will connect over a 4G connection instead.

I'm giving instructions here only for the iPhone 12 and newer models. (Turning off 5G may not be an option on your Android phone.) Please note that these instructions might vary slightly on your iPhone.

Go to the iPhone Settings app > Cellular > Cellular Data Options > Voice & Data. Or in the Settings app, you might need to look for an option labeled Mobile Data or Primary SIM.

You may see three options:

  • 5G Auto: Your iPhone will connect automatically to a 5G network when that's a speedier, better connection and 4G when it isn't.

  • 5G On: This forces your iPhone to connect to a 5G network when one is available. Your battery might drain more quickly.

  • LTE: Your iPhone will only use 4G service even if 5G is available.

For most people most of the time, it's smart to stick with 5G Auto and let your iPhone choose whether to use a 5G network.

But if you're particularly unhappy with your battery life, try the LTE option and see if that makes a difference.

--Shira Ovide, The Washington Post

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