When carriers are telling people to turn off 5G to save battery, there’s a problem, and it’s not just power drain.
Both Verizon and T-Mobile were caught this week telling their users to turn off 5G to save battery, a sort of egg-on-face, foot-in-mouth situation that maybe we shouldn’t read too much into. But I will! I will read more into it, because when a carrier’s tech support people and its marketing people are saying opposite things, something’s clearly up.
Verizon started the ball rolling with an unfortunate, now-deleted tweet telling people to “turn on [4G] LTE” on their iPhones to conserve battery. On a recent iPhone, that means turning off 5G. T-Mobile’s sin appeared on a slew of device support pages, which suggest going down from 5G to 2G to preserve battery, which is really amusing. That will make your phone basically not work. T-Mobile has reduced its 2G network to an absolute minimum, mostly to support machine-to-machine devices like point-of-sale systems.
The relationship between 5G and battery drain is…tricky. The first-generation 5G phones based on the Qualcomm X50 modem frequently overheated and consumed battery very quickly, but those problems appeared to be solved with the current X55 and X60 modems. That doesn’t mean 5G mode is as battery-efficient as 4G mode is, even on new phones. The current problems are more in network design.
All the carriers are guilty of often asking phones to connect to more distant 5G signals rather than nearer 4G-only signals, so they can show 5G coverage. That burns battery. T-Mobile has a long-range, low-band 5G network that uses a shorter-range, mid-band 4G network as its control channel, and your phone sometimes has to strain to hear the control channel. That burns battery. The DSS system Verizon and AT&T both use as part of their “nationwide 5G” systems was shown in a recent paper to reduce data rates and increase interference. You know what increased interference burns? Battery.
New technologies are coming to reduce 5G power consumption. As T-Mobile switches to standalone 5G, that drops the mid-band control channel and results in less battery drain. When Verizon and AT&T turn on C-band next year, they won’t rely on DSS as much, which will also help battery life. Over time, more sites will have 5G and your phone won’t have to stretch as much, and that means—you guessed it—less battery drain. Qualcomm is also doing some wild things with RF tuning in its new X65 chipset for next year’s phones; it too will help with battery.
But ultimately the big gap here is that people are seeing their batteries dip and don’t feel like they’re getting anything for it. If the existing 5G has similar performance to 4G, and no exclusive applications…why not turn it off?
A great 5G application like Microsoft Mesh, the crazy-awesome VR collaboration tool Microsoft announced this week, could turn things around. But Mesh is dependent on glasses hardware that probably won’t exist for at least five years. That’s a lot of years of annoyed support calls.