Is there a 5G ‘placebo effect’?

Consumers may have seen headlines about 5G and jumped to the conclusion that they have it. (Pixabay)

One-third of Americans state that they own a 5G-capable device, according to a survey of 2,000 US smartphone owners conducted in late May by Decluttr, a phone refurbishment company. It seems likely that many of these consumers are confused given the limited availability of 5G devices and their cost in addition to the initial sparse 5G coverage.

Some of the available 5G devices in the United States include the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, which costs about $1,299; the LG V50 ThinQ, which costs about $1,060; and the Motorola moto z3 and z4 with the add-on 5G mod totaling about $700.

Some of the confusion might stem from AT&T’s marketing of its “5G Evolution.” As part of the marketing, AT&T displays a 5G E icon on some smartphones, even when those phones are not 5G capable and even when they’re not operating on 5G networks. AT&T caught a lot of heat for its 5G E icon, with both Sprint and T-Mobile calling the icon “fake 5G.” But AT&T makes no apologies for the icon and continues to display it on non-5G phones.

RELATED: AT&T to begin upgrading existing LTE phones to ‘5G E’

However, it seems the 5G E icon can’t be entirely to blame for consumer confusion because significant numbers of subscribers at T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon also claim to own 5G devices. Perhaps these consumers have seen headlines stating that 5G is coming to their cities, and they’ve jumped to the conclusion that they have 5G.

Declutter chart

And once they think they have 5G, these consumers often report improved service (akin to taking a sugar pill and suddenly feeling better). Of the survey respondents who claimed they owned a 5G device, about 62% of those said they have noticed improvements to their mobile service while using the 5G network. This is also suspect, given the limited number of cities and small areas of initial 5G coverage. And in AT&T’s case, the carrier is only offering its millimeter-wave-based mobile 5G service to select business customers.

In its Speedtest U.S. Mobile Performance Report released today, Ookla said, “5G deployments in the U.S. are new enough that we have chosen not to release specific data comparing 5G performance between operators until we can look at trends over a longer period of time. We can say that we’ve seen speeds upwards of 2 Gbps in consumer tests in real-world environments.”

RELATED: AT&T wins on speed, Verizon on consistency in Q1-Q2 2019, says Ookla

While Ookla said it’s too early to release 5G performance data, Opensignal recently compared peak mobile speeds in eight countries that have launched 5G services. Its data showed that the highest maximum speeds were seen by 5G users in the US with 1.8 Gbps, which is approximately three times as fast as 4G users’ maximum speed. Switzerland followed in second place with 1.14 Gbps, and South Korea ranked third with 5G users’ peak speed of 1.1 Gbps. “The speeds we measured in these three leading countries were significantly faster than the maximum speed in European markets where 5G has only just launched such as Italy or Spain, or in the UK,” wrote Opensignal analyst Ian Fogg, in a blog post.

Opensignal chart