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2020 was not the year of 5G. 2021 won’t be either.

January 4, 2021, 2:38 PM UTC

2020 will most certainly not go down in the history books as the year 5G became mainstream.

To be fair, the newest, fastest, coolest wireless technology made some strides last year. Apple produced 5G-compatible iPhones at the high end while Samsung, Google, and a few others debuted models under $500 at the low end. So most people can now at least buy a 5G phone. That’s progress.

But there has not been enough progress on the equally important task of building out super-fast 5G networks to cover where most people live. You may have heard AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon all claim to offer “nationwide 5G” service.

But sadly what they meant by “nationwide” and by “5G” were both lacking. The national coverage was only for 200 million people, leaving another 130 million or so uncovered. And the flavor of 5G offered at that scale was barely faster than 4G, if even that. Coverage has been improving since the announcements, but speed has not. In a Grinch-steals-Christmas kind of moment, PC Magazine‘s ace wireless reporter Sascha Sagan recommended two weeks ago that because Verizon’s nationwide 5G service is so slow, subscribers should turn off 5G on their phones and stick with 4G.

There is some truly speedy 5G coverage out there, but in many fewer areas. Verizon’s “ultrawideband 5G” can provide speeds faster than the fastest wired home Internet connections, as can AT&T’s “5G+” network. T-Mobile’s “Mid-band 5G” isn’t quite that fast but it’s close. The problem is that Verizon’s fast 5G is only available in small parts of 60 cities and AT&T’s is in even fewer. T-Mobile was aiming to cover 100 million people by the end of the year, but even that’s a long way from the ubiquitous coverage we’re used to with 4G.

Perhaps more importantly: Even if you get fast 5G coverage, there’s almost no reason to care. No one downloads big movie files anymore–they stream them. And what else is there to tax the download speed? I’ve been testing a 5G iPhone for months and, more recently, a Google Pixel 4A 5G. And the only way to tell I’m on fast 5G is with a speed testing app.

In the normal course of using a smartphone, 5G makes no appreciable difference, whether scrolling through Instagram posts, watching YouTube videos, or listening to a podcast. In part, that’s because phone software has been optimized to deal with fast and slow connections. But it’s also because no one has yet offered any compelling 5G apps. We hear a lot about future apps that will take advantage of 5G, perhaps with virtual reality or multiplayer gaming, but nothing has taken off yet.

Later today, the federal government’s latest 5G airwave auction resumes and the bidding has already gone sky high. If the auction ended right now, carriers would pay the government $70 billion plus another $13 billion to compensate the current license holders. The spectrum will provide critically needed capacity to help fill in the gaps in fast 5G networks. But the prices have gotten so high–already two to three times what Wall Street analysts expected–that carriers will be weighed down by substantial debt to pay for their winning bids.

As longtime telecom analyst Craig Moffett at MoffettNathanson Research points out this morning, that means slower spending to build out 5G networks and possibly even financially destabilizing some carriers. “It would be tempting to say that the seller–in this case, the U.S. government, or, if you prefer, U.S. taxpayers–made out like bandits,” he writes. “But if the real goal was to accelerate the deployment of 5G networks, well, that’s harder to judge a success.”

And you thought 2021 was going to be nothing but good news?

Aaron Pressman
@ampressman
aaron.pressman@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

Which side are you on. Several hundred Google employees are seeking to unionize the company's workforce. Their new effort, the Alphabet Workers Union, is backed by the Communications Workers of America.

Bargain basement tapes. The carcass of Jeffrey Katzenberg's short video folly, Quibi, is still warm but the vultures have moved in. Roku is in talks to buy the rights to all of Quibi's quick bites, the Wall Street Journal reports. Just how much Murder House Flip, Dishmantled, Shape of Pasta, and their mates are worth is yet to be seen.

A danger to himself. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange will not be extradited to the United States, a British court ruled on Monday, but maybe not for the obvious reason that he committed no crimes. Judge Vanessa Baraitser found there was plenty of evidence against Assange, but "the procedures described by the US will not prevent Mr Assange from finding a way to commit suicide."

I don’t think bungee-jumpable is a word. After reaching an all-time record of over $34,000, the price of bitcoin plunged below $30,000 earlier on Monday, sending the value of the digital currency to its lowest level since Saturday.

Rewind. A few big stories you may have missed over the break:

  • Apple's mysterious electric car, Project Titan, is back on track with delivery now rumored for 2024.
  • Nikola lost another big deal it had previously announced, this one to build 2,500 zero-emission garbage trucks for Republic Services.
  • SAP wants to sell a stake in its Qualtrics International unit to the public in a deal valuing the business software developer at up to $14 billion.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

The pandemic may have turned Zoom into a verb, but a bunch of upstarts think the leader in video conferencing has missed some customer needs. Wall Street Journal reporter Ann-Marie Alcántara takes a look at startups like Mmhmm and Sophya.AI.

Part of what the startups are trying to solve for is an issue called “Zoom fatigue” many people feel, which is perpetuated by only seeing other people’s heads, said Chris Ross, vice president, analyst at research and advisory company Gartner Inc. As more video platforms come onto the scene, it won’t be the technology necessarily that stands out but instead how these companies incorporate graphics and toggling between people’s faces to make the experience less draining, Mr. Ross added.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Marketers can’t predict what you’ll buy—even if they use A.I. By David Gal

The online grocery startup betting big on the pandemic shift in grocery shopping By Rachel King

From Bitcoin to Asian tech stocks, these are the biggest winners and losers of the 2020 global markets By Bernhard Warner

The NYSE is set to delist 3 Chinese companies—but U.S. investors can still own shares By Eamon Barrett

Under Biden, expect more scrutiny of Big Tech and mergers By Aaron Pressman

Why the U.S. needs a national climate investment fund By Brewer Stone

Why ‘soft robots’ have NASA, doctors, and tech whizzes so excited By Don Basile

(Some of these stories require a subscription to access. Thank you for supporting our journalism.)

BEFORE YOU GO

Lots to look forward to in 2021, including some intriguing space missions. NASA’s Perseverance rover is scheduled to land on Mars on February 18 and India's Chandrayaan-3 reaches the moon a month later.

And only 14 years late and billions of dollars over budget, the James Webb Space Telescope finally comes on line later this year. The largest telescope lofted into orbit yet, the Webb's 6.5-meter mirror could find new galaxies and reveal deeper detail about planets in other star systems. I'm feeling heavenly already.