Fast 5G Cellular Networks Don’t Matter if People Can’t Afford to Use Them

The 5G logo

If you’re like me, you’ve been inundated with ads for the “revolutionary” “amazing” “innovative” new 5G cellular networks that are being brought online by all of the major carriers. While I remember being bombarded with advertising when 4G was new, it wasn’t to the same level. Back then it was all about speed boosts. The 4G networks were “blazing fast,” but they weren’t marketed as something that will change the world. The 5G advertising has taken it to a new level.

Here are a few examples:

“5G for faster downloads and better streaming. With U.S. Cellular 5G, you’ll download a movie in a fraction of the time you’re used to and stream 4K movies with ease.”
5G is somehow helping children learn

“Drones could revolutionize the way local, state and federal agencies face crisis situations. With 5G Ultra Wideband, you could someday remotely deploy drones and create 3D maps to better identify danger and assess damage in low-visibility areas.”

Perhaps the drones one makes a bit of sense if there is significantly more bandwidth on Verizon’s 5G network, though this seems like more of a marketing piece to apologize for blocking firefighters’ full access to their network.

The thing is, all of the claims seemed to center around 5G’s speed and ability to connect more devices simultaneously. While this is great, it doesn’t solve the biggest problem that plagues cellular Internet, and that is data caps.

To make claims such as the one above about streaming a 4K movie with ease–who is going to be doing this when streaming a 4K movie can consume gigabytes of data, which either eats into the meager data caps people have with their plans or costs several dollars for a single gigabyte on a pay-as-you-go plan? For instance, Google Fi charges $10/GB. How many people are going to be streaming 4K movies when it’s going to cost over $10 to stream just a single one? Then there is the problem of the plague of “unlimited” plans.

Fake Unlimited Plans

Straight Talk's unlimited plan marketing showing high speed data capped after 25GB.
Stop playing games with other carriers! Get our fake unlimited plan instead, where you get slightly better than dial-up speeds after you use it like a normal person for just a few days!

Unlimited data plans existed for a while in the early iPhone days before everyone had a smartphone. Then, they realized that data plans were becoming the most valuable part of a phone plan and it made more sense to force everyone to pay per kilobyte used rather than allow those unlimited connections. The carriers claimed that they didn’t have the capacity to allow everyone to have an unlimited plan, but the evidence of this seems dubious. For a while, unlimited plans disappeared.

Then a couple of years ago, the unlimited plan rose from the ashes like a phoenix–scratch that–like a zombie. These “unlimited” plans vaguely resembled the unlimited plans of old, but with a major catch: If you exceeded using a certain amount of data in a month, they’d slow you down to 2G speeds. A 2G connection maxes out at far less than 1 Mbps, or enough to load text at a reasonable rate, and that’s about it. If your definition of an Internet connection is “text only,” then this is an unlimited plan. For the rest of us, these are fake unlimited plans.

I was talking to my wife the other day about cellular plan data caps, and she wasn’t sure she’d use much more data than she does now if she had an unlimited plan. I think that’s the problem with cell phone plans–we’ve been trained into believing we don’t need more data than we use because we’ve artificially limited what we can do with our phones while outside of our homes and places with Wi-Fi. I would never consider streaming a movie, downloading a game, or even backing up my pictures over a cellular data connection because it’s been expensive since I got my first smartphone in 2010. What would happen if that limitation went away?

An Internet Revolution

Do you remember a time before broadband Internet connections? This was when dial-up was the way you connected to the Internet and you paid per-minute for that connection. That was fine for a while, before the Internet was a vital tool for commerce, entertainment, education, and so much more. If that model still existed today, or worse, people were charged per kilobyte of data used at home, which of the following do you think would exist today?

  • High-resolution images on every website
  • Streaming video services
  • Downloading video games
  • Internet shopping

Each one of those things requires either a lot of data, time online, or both. Unlimited home Internet has changed the world.

Only True Unlimited Data Plans Matter

I can’t remember the last time I heard someone complaining about the speed of their cellular network. On the other hand, it’s about a monthly occurrence when someone complains that their kid/spouse/friend on their shared “unlimited” plan used up all of the “fast” data and now they can’t even load a Snapchat because their phone has been throttled so much.

Network speed doesn’t matter if you can’t use it.

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