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Understanding 5G and mobile networks – Shameless Upselling Edition

My first 5G writeup dates from the initial launch of the technology in Canada, so early 2020. No, 5G cannot carry organic matter because it’d imply we have invented teleporters. Instead, we have more and more disappointing marketing maneuvers to “improve” the average revenue per user (or ARPU) and ferment fear of missing out on… I don’t really know. Something about faster communications, because us humans never have quite enough data to parse, right? I felt that in 2022, after two years of spurious nonsense, a proper update was now necessary, so there it is. Join me as we attempt to make sense of the latest in malevolent marketing. *Note that while I take examples relevant to Canada, the facts and conclusions are largely universal. If you are a reader from another country, I invite you to keep reading nonetheless as most of what follows remains relevant to you.

| v1.0 : Initial release on 04/12/2022 Lisez cet article en Français Vendredi.

| Table of contents:

5G’s selling points

5G SA and NSA

5G+ 5G mmWave Speeds Streaming capabilities

| 5G’s selling points

Can you keep track of 5G’s amazing revolutions? No? Okay, let’s ask our trusted and unbiased experts: the telcos. Here’s their vision of Canada with 5G:

“Car, activate shuffling nuclear lock link. Huh, why is there a truck driving on the wrong side of the-“ (Bell)
Someone staring at an infinite void outdoors, enjoying some mock strangulation. An unattended bad is set besides him and looks quite inviting to abduct.
Practically begging for the world to dispossess you from your bag. (Rogers)
A young man is looking concerned, holding his smartphone intensely in landscape mode. He wears wireless headphones, seemingly a Beats counterfeit.
“Low latency” gaming, very high latency audio. (Telus)
A man with a blank expression as he navigates some kind of media storefront on an iMac. A young baby sits on his lap, blissfully unaware of his father's addiction.
"Just five more minutes, Daddy's watching a music storefront in 5G" (Vidéotron)

Aren’t you by now convinced by 5G’s new, exciting possibilities? No? Okay, here’s a few more selling points:

  • Be able to stretch your arm for hours on end, streaming faraway low quality footage of sporting events, enabling your followers to see that little red blob run towards that thing and do something the crowd cheered for.

  • Deplete your data allocation up to 100 times faster, provided you find a server somewhere that lets you download useful information at 10Gbps.

  • Amazing augmented reality experiences impossible on LTE, such as Pokémon Go. Er…

  • Increase your vulnerability to Internet threats with overly abundant IoT.

  • Novel communication methods such as video calls, but completely different from what we had before, yup, you can trust us on that.

  • Serve up to 10M devices per square kilometre. We do not have a single 10M people greater urban area, let alone a venue that can host that many users, but let’s not allow facts to get in our way.

  • Download medical files!

These are astounding new possibilities, only enabled by 5G. Why aren’t you now rushing to forgive your house deed and firstborn to your generous telco and access 5G for a month is beyond me.

Note that 5G brings some actual and desirable improvements on a technological level. For instance, IMS features are now mandatory. That means you won’t have to consider if features like RCS, Wi-Fi calling or VoLTE (or VoNR now) are compatible with your smartphone and network. IMS was unfortunately an optional component of the 4G LTE standard, which led to the situation we now know today.

| 5G SA and NSA

NSA 5G is not a tool of mass surveillance. For that, we have social media. NSA means “not standalone”, or “dependent on LTE”. You will not have access to 5G’s new core technologies (including IMS features) with an NSA network. See it as LTE-Advanced+. 5G SA is true 5G, with the aforementioned improvements. It is not based on LTE. As of time of writing, only Rogers offers 5G SA in certain markets. The rest remains glorified LTE.

| 5G+

This is not the Canadian moniker of mmWave. This is currently used to describe 3.5GHz networks, which are technically within the LTE-A specification. If Canada auctions more network bands in the 3-6GHz range, these will likely fall into 5G+ branding. These higher frequency bands have shorter range than what we’ve grown accustomed to thus far, though potential bandwidth is higher.

The fact that carriers attempt to charge extra for these bands is counterproductive. These bands are useful for crowded places, to ensure the network can cope with the demand. Network bands must be seen as a carrier-side benefit, to increase their network capacity.

| 5G mmWave

When carriers talk about “100x faster speeds than LTE”, they think about 5G mmWave deployments, that can indeed serve much, much faster speeds… in extremely limited conditions. But first, let’s define mmWave.

mmWave means millimetric wavelength. These represent very high frequencies, above 6GHz. In reality, carriers think about 20GHz or so when they discuss mmWave.

The advantage of these longer lengths is massively higher capacity. The disadvantage… massively lower range. Simple obstacles should easily block a mmWave network, and they do! A mmWave network requires line of sight, and thus a massive network of massive antennas is required. Have a look at one:

Looks like a sketch based on a child's account of a monster under the bed (5GTechnologyWorld)

These antennas create narrow, high-capacity beams. Now, you need multiple of those at any given place to have 360 degrees reach… and place them at regular intervals due to their exceptionally poor coverage. In fact, US carriers have apparently grown embarrassed by mmWave networks only covering the streets themselves and have proceeded to rebrand their networks.

In the case of T-Mobile, for instance, low bands like 600MHz are branded as “Extended range”, while other bands like 1900MHz and 3.5GHz are lumped together with 20GHz+ mmWave under an “Ultra Capacity” network, neatly concealing mmWave limitations from appearing on their network maps. I’ve observed the same from other US carriers offering mmWave.

| Speeds

Speeds are but a component amongst many others in any network or specification, just as resolution alone does not dictate the quality of a video. A 1Mbps 4K UHD video with 22 KHz mono audio and sRGB colour will still look and sound like rubbish, even if it’s offered in 2160p.

In order of appearance: Near-RAW quality JPEG encode, lowest quality JPEG encode, 32-colour GIF encode, 4-colour PNG encode. As you'll notice, despite bearing the exact same resolution, the image quality itself varies greatly. Click to enlarge.

| Content discussion: Bee field matrix The latest entrant in my technology comparison arsenal. The first picture is a 3000x2000 shot depicting a field of plants bearing small flowers and a pollinating bee. The three remaining pictures are 3000x2000 re-encodes, based on the RAW file from which the first picture was compiled. You'll certainly see it in other guides I'll make in the future. The point is really to show how resolution alone (or file format, for that matter) is not helpful in describing visual content's quality.

As such, the recent attempts at segregating network speeds under a 4G or 5G umbrella do amount to lies. You know, the LTE standard, which was reprised officially as “4G” included provisions to reach 1.5Gbps. And that isn’t a theoretical conjuncture either, as Bell themselves have announced reaching these speeds on LTE, using carrier aggregation and 5GHz bands.

Recently, mobile carriers have established that they can charge you more if they conceal higher network speeds behind a paywall, and brand it as 5G speeds or something like that. These lower speeds are sometimes branded as 4G, including with flanker brands that won’t offer “5G” yet. “4G” or “non-5G” speeds are capped at 250Mbps or lower, depending on the sleaziness of your carrier.

I cannot state strongly enough that the proposition of speeds being linked this arbitrarily to the mobile technology generation is a huuuuuuuge lie. I’ve personally always been able to hit 400Mbps or higher on an LTE smartphone, before 5G was ever a consideration in Canada. There’s no reason “4G” suddenly cannot reach these speeds until I pay a supplement.

Note that latency (ping) is identical. That’s because 5G NSA is LTE. It is sad that now, carriers mandate that we must pay for both speeds and capacity, a sign of a well-organised cartel. In a truly competitive market, were one of them attempting to do this, others would’ve leaped on this occasion to boast about their (old) simpler, better plans, without even changing their plans. But nope, one carrier creates a new upsell opportunity and every other follow suit in a week. Every. Carrier. Including flanker brands that are owned by the big carriers, of course. Videotron has yet to embark in this trend… for now.

| Streaming capabilities

That’s a fun one. You may have “up to 250Mbps” speeds on your peasant plan, but you can’t stream above 480p. You might believe this is fair, after all, “250Mbps” isn’t quite those blazing 5G speeds… Except that while you’re at home, or literally anywhere with a Wi-Fi hotspot, you can stream 1080p videos on a 15Mbps connection… or lower!

In fact, you can have very high quality 1080p video with a total bitrate of just under 6 Mbps. Consider this data from a small series I watched recently, that had an astounding picture and excellent audio:

File size: 3800 MiB, including bilingual Dolby Digital 5.1 surround tracks. Episode length: 90 minutes (I am fond of very long-form content)

And now, we use mathematics. You find out the average bitrate, or the amount of data required every second to read this file properly, by dividing the total data by the total length:

3800/(90*60) = 0,7 MiB/s.

Except you must multiply this value by 8 to convert Mebibytes per second into Megabits per second (Mbps), since a byte is made of 8 bits:

0,7*8 = 5,6Mbps.

So, my great-looking 1080p stream would only require 5,6Mbps of bandwidth on average (this one peaks at less than 10Mbps in a few scenes, nothing alarming). I could’ve exposed a few Blu-Ray samples, but you’ll be unable to distinguish a very good “normal” stream from its practically uncompressed counterpart on a smartphone.

The proposition that you cannot stream “HD” video on these plans is thus a fabrication. Perhaps you shouldn’t if you are a Canadian, as we do not have true unlimited plans and data buckets remain amongst the most expensive on the planet, but by all means, if you want to stream a movie with your leftover data, you can do so in 1080p. In fact, I’ve had to ask myself “how would capping stream resolution even be possible?”. Carriers can see whom your devices are sending requests to, as DNS providers, but they should not be able to read HTTPS requests.

| Quick definition: What is HTTPS? HTTPS means Internet requests are encrypted over TLS, between the sender and its recipient. Nobody but the intended parties can read or alter these requests. HTTP is unencrypted.

As such, when you request from a streaming service for a 1080p picture quality, your carrier cannot alter the request and ask for 480p on your behalf. I asked a few of these carriers how this process actually worked. I was often told that this is “very technical” or that this information could not be disclosed by the telecom company. Meh. Some were more straightforward in their answers, where reps simply told me they didn’t knew and couldn’t source this information at all.

I’d file a request via their Media addresses, but I fear they’ll then file my request under “Spam”. I believe the next course of action would be to solicit some entities like CBC Marketplace (or its french equivalent, La Facture).

Plus, the concept of limiting resolution based on your plan completely ignores the concept of “buffering”, let alone downloading videos for ulterior consumption. It is illogical and mostly to push you to a sleazy upsell.

If I had to guess, carriers would cripple network quality (speed, latency, dropped packets etc.) so that “Auto” quality settings think you’re on a DSL connection, and serve you something worse to compensate. Dishonest stuff.

| Conclusion

What did you think? Enthralling, isn’t it? 5G is a story of dubious claims, insistent upselling and of marketing departments taking concepts they’re unable to understand themselves to try and impose you a new vision of what happiness is and extract lofty payments from you in the process. Remain alert on what companies claim to offer or enable to avoid falling for their traps.

This guide will be updated as the technology's deployment and marketing... evolves. Feel like I missed something? Let me know and I'll address it.

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