Sitting in my apartment in New York’s Upper West Side, I’m browsing the web, checking emails and watching YouTube and Netflix the same as I normally do. Things are loading quickly, even with multiple devices hooked up. But this isn’t my normal Spectrum cable connection. All of that data is riding over a Wi-Fi network powered by a hotspot running on Sprint’s 5G network. Yes, that Sprint. Its network isn’t officially live in the city, but I’m getting well over 100 Mbps, faster than Ookla’s 2018 average internet speed in the US.
More important: I didn’t have to install any wires or special equipment into my apartment. I just fired up the HTC 5G Hub and plugged in my existing router. For a US market that frequently bemoans the lack of competition in home broadband, the idea of cellphone carriers entering the industry with 5G brings plenty of promise.
Consumers often see prices rise in areas where there’s only one provider, yet many Americans continue to lack competitive home internet options. Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint have all hyped up home broadband as one of the many uses of 5G to solve this problem by offering a viable and speedy alternative.
Verizon’s first 5G network rollout focused on the home, while T-Mobile CEO John Legere railed against “big cable” while pitching regulators on his company’s $26.5 billion merger with Sprint.
Whether this is just more 5G hype, however, remains to be seen.
At home with Verizon’s first 5G user
Last October, Clayton Harris had Verizon technicians and executives, including CEO Hans Vestberg, descend on his home. The Houston-based mechanical engineer was the first person in the country to get Verizon’s 5G home broadband network, which the carrier touted as the first 5G network in the US.
Originally launched in Houston, Indianapolis and Sacramento, this 5G service wasn’t designed to connect phones or tablets, but rather provide Verizon with a new home broadband option beyond its traditional high-speed Fios fiber home internet service.
Powered by a form of millimeter-wave signals — a technology the carrier is using to offer 5G in cities around the country — the service offers super-fast internet speeds directly into homes and is also known as “fixed wireless.”
While technically different from the mobile network, the high speeds that are attained are similar, ranging from several hundred to over 1Gbps. (The two networks are currently incompatible, though Verizon plans to merge them over time and switch the home network technology to the same one the mobile version is using.)
“I typically see, on the lower end, 500-600Mbps. And I think the highest I’ve seen is 1.8Gbps,” said Harris, 34. Typical speeds are between “1.1Gbps and 1.2Gbps.”
A small antenna, roughly the “size of a Bible,” as Harris puts it, is mounted on the side of his house and connects to a nearby cell tower. The antenna runs into Harris’ home and connects to his modem.
A self-described “power user,” Harris streams video over YouTube TV, plays games on Xbox Live and works out of a home that’s filled with smart devices. (As the first Verizon 5G user in the country, Harris said, the company gave him and his wife Pixel 3 phones and some Nest smart home equipment.)
Prior to 5G, Harris had Comcast, which, while reliable, he wasn’t happy with. “The bill creeped the crap out of me,” Harris said, noting how his bill was constantly “creeping up and up,” requiring a “constant battle” where he had to repeatedly threaten to cancel his service to keep his rates down.
Breaking free from the cable oligopoly
Cable companies have long been a pain for consumers.
In a survey regarding internet service providers, the American Customer Satisfaction Index gave Comcast a score of 61 out of 100, while Cox had a score of 60 and Spectrum (the combination of Time Warner Cable and Charter) received a 59.
All four major wireless carriers faired better, with T-Mobile (76), Verizon (74) and AT&T (73) beating the cable guys by at least 12 points.
Sprint, which has faced a number of struggles in recent years, was a distant fourth in wireless but, with a score of 65, was several points better than Comcast.
As 5G networks expand across the US and in a market that often limits people to one or two options, the question hanging over the industry is whether the new technology will finally open the door for real change.
“In general, consumers are dissatisfied with the amount of choice they have for broadband service,” said Dan Hays, a principal for PwC’s consulting business. “And they don’t always view that they are receiving significant enough value for the money they’re paying.”
A 2018 survey by the firm found that 51% of polled consumers thought they were paying too much for their home internet (compared to 36% on mobile internet), with 21% of respondents saying they chose their current provider because it was “the only option available where [they] live.”
In addition to providing alternatives for those in areas with a single provider, Hays noted that the expansion of 5G and similar wireless technologies could also help communities still struggling to get a reliable broadband connection “without having to dig up hundreds of yards, or even miles, of ground or hang fiber on [telephone] poles to reach their homes.
“This offers a lot of opportunities to connect the unconnected.”
Growing pains aplenty
Similar to the issues facing its mobile sibling, home 5G is in its very “early days,” said Ian Fogg, head of analysis at wireless tracking firm OpenSignal. “Everyone is still learning.”
In the near future, Fogg anticipates a lot of experimentation from carriers to see what makes sense in practice from a business perspective. But “as far as affecting the experience of millions of Americans, I think that’s some way off.”
So far, only Verizon and Sprint sell working 5G mobile hotspots to consumers. (AT&T was the first to offer a 5G hotspot, but it still doesn’t allow consumers onto its 5G network). Verizon’s offering, which works with its mobile 5G network, is more of a traditional portable hotspot compared to Sprint’s hub, and at a retail price of $650 it isn’t cheap.
Sprint’s HTC 5G Hub is designed for use in the home or on the go, but at $25 per month for 24 months ($600 total), it too is pricey. And as with Verizon, this is just the retail price of the modem.
Data plans for hotspots aren’t only expensive, they also have data caps. On Verizon, 50GB of 5G data (with an extra 15GB of 4G LTE data) will run you $90 per month, while 100GB of high-speed data on Sprint costs $60 per month.
While neither carrier will charge an overage fee if you use more, Verizon will throttle your 5G speeds down to a pedestrian 3Mbps and Sprint will bring you down to brutally slow “2G speeds.”
How likely are you to hit that cap? Playing a full game of Madden 20 online over Xbox Live used less than half a gigabyte of data, but streaming a 16-minute episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee from Netflix to a 4K Samsung TV took up over 2.2GB.
Streaming the just under two-hour film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in HD from Netflix to a MacBook Pro (with some simultaneous web browsing) used nearly 5GB.
There were also a handful of issues connecting devices to the Hub, which has a “Private DNS” mode enabled by default. Turning that off allowed me to connect the Xbox and Samsung TV to the Hub, but the Xbox still had some issues and was unable to host games or stream Netflix to the console. (I could, however, join games being hosted by others.) Also, a Roku TV failed to connect entirely even with the Private DNS mode turned off.
I was, however, able to stream Netflix to a Chromecast and Amazon Fire TV Stick without issues.
With minimal user customization options, it was unclear what exactly was causing my problems. Sprint said it was working with HTC to try to figure out the issue.
Reasons to remain excited
Even with the early growing pains, the idea of 5G in the home is still an exciting one.
Beyond bringing an alternative to areas that lack strong connections or other options, adding fresh competitors puts pressure on cable providers to up their games.
And their nervousness shows. In a bid to head off the 5G hype, cable companies united earlier this year around a “10G” campaign, or the idea of pushing data speeds to 10Gbps, or 10 times faster than the gigabit internet being offered to consumers today. To be clear, though, it’s not the 10th generation of anything, and since the January announcement no provider has touted 10G publicly.
The goal, of course, is to keep people connected to their cable company and not switch to a wireless provider.
“The introduction of wireless broadband really poses some threat in the long term to the incumbent providers,” said Hays. “This is going to be a question of ‘keep up’ or you don’t survive.
“When we look at this, in the long run, we see that there is increased competition that quite frankly benefits the consumer.”