Test driving 5G in Singapore: Faster, yes, but still a work in progress

October 2nd, 2020 | by Alfred Siew
Test driving 5G in Singapore: Faster, yes, but still a work in progress
Cellphones
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A 5G test at the peak of Mount Faber in Singapore. 5G speeds easily go beyond the usual 100Mbps to 200Mbps you get on 4G, depending on location. PHOTO: Alfred Siew

When Singtel executives recently passed a number of 5G phones and SIM cards to journalists in Singapore, they were careful to highlight a few things for the trial.

One, make sure the phone is not on power saving mode, or it might go back to 4G. Two, allow the phone to cool down, because once you run too many speed tests, it might heat up and thus be forced to slow things down to keep the temperature low.

And that’s not to mention that you have to be near one of a handful of locations where the 5G signals are the strongest, to have the best results when it comes to testing the speed of the new network.

In so many ways, these limitations show where we are with 5G now. It is very much a work in progress, which the telecom operators here all acknowledge with their current trials.

At a demo last month, Singtel staff showed off speeds of up to 1Gbps when they were standing directly next to an antenna mounted at their Comcentre headquarters. I never replicated that elsewhere, but the new technology does show promise.

When it worked, it certainly offered a glimpse of a future when huge movie files can be downloaded in the blink of an eye. The latency will be so low you can get onto online games without any lag.

With the phones Singtel lent me, I went to a particular spot in Vivocity – at the entrance facing Telok Blangah Road – and got decent speeds of up to 579Mbps. Not bad.

But since I did this while standing in the hot sun – the signals are only available outdoors for now – the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra phone I was holding heated up after repeated tests and dropped back to 4G to avoid overheating.

Several times, I restarted the phone to force it to log on to a 5G network, but this didn’t always work because it may still have been too warm. A trick that Singtel staff taught me was to go to flight mode to turn off all the radios in the phone, then turn things back on, to get it to be on 5G.

Not happy that I wasn’t closer to the top speed of 1Gbps, I drove up Mount Faber nearby, another recommended testing site. Here, on high ground and without so many buildings to interfere with the signals, I got better results.

I managed to get as fast as 679Mbps while testing at various sites around Mount Faber. Singtel folks tell me they can get as high as 800Mbps so I wasn’t far off.

When it comes to latency, I got a mixed bag with 5G. I got as low as 8ms at some places, but also as high as 15ms, which is similar to some 4G tests I did on the same Samsung phone. 4G latency can go higher, to be sure, and the lag may not be good for, say, online games.

What do these numbers really tell us about the state of 5G in Singapore? Well, the promise is slowly being fulfilled, but today 5G is still an elusive experience because of the limited coverage at this early stage of the network build-out.

And it is not just the numbers that matter. 5G is designed to be delivered by a dense network of antennas, mounted on buildings and other indoor areas, all working together to zip your files through thin air.

I noticed that more than a few hundred metres were as far as I could get from an obvious cluster of antennas at the top of Mount Faber, for example, before I would be “handed over” to a 4G network. So, telcos have to sort out that complex setup as they plot the coverage of their networks.

To be sure, Singtel has been surprisingly open with letting journalists and the public test out its network. In the past, the first media impressions of 3G and 4G attracted a lot more scrutiny. I was often “chaperoned” by telco executives when I tested networks from those previous generations.

One thing to note is that the current trials from the three telecom operators with the 5G licences here are based on the so-called non-standalone (NSA) version for 5G.

This means you get the faster speeds but the lower latency will not be as significant an improvement. Telcos also can’t “slice” up the bandwidth and sell them in chunks to businesses, say, to connect up their smart sensors.

For all that, you need the full-fledged 5G version, called 5G standalone (SA). Since it is built on entirely new equipment, instead of over 4G components, it offers a lot more flexibility as well.

Half of Singapore will be connected by 5G SA that by end-2022, according to government requirements. So far, in the world, only one operator in the United States has rolled out 5G SA.

Should you buy a 5G phone now? In March, when there were only two models available in Singapore, we said there was no need to rush.

It’s the same advice now but if you’re buying an expensive, more-than-S$1,000 flagship model, there’s a good chance you will get 5G in it. So, pick one with the new feature.

However, if you’re eyeing a less expensive phone, there is no reason to burst your budget for a 5G model now, unless you want to have the thrill of seeing these speed tests on your phone, which really are just numbers, not actual experiences.

Your e-mail won’t be hitting your inbox substantially slower on 4G. Spotify and Netflix will stream fine on 4G. How often do you download gigabytes of files on your phone, anyway?

Having said that, 5G is the future. It’s just that it will take at least a year or two to show its true promise, which goes beyond faster downloads on your phone.

All sorts of devices can be connected through this fast link, which also offers near-instantaneous response, so you can control a robot or even drive a car remotely, if you wish.

That’s the theory, anyway, because we don’t know for sure what’s the “killer app” that people will use with all that bandwidth and almost zero lag.

Maybe it might be watching Korean dramas on the go, which is surely one of the most popular uses of the current 4G networks today. How groundbreaking is that?

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