We speed tested 5G phones against 4G ones. America’s new nationwide 5G networks weren’t much faster — and in some places they were slower.
Well, hold on just a minute. 5G may hold promise for the years ahead — but across most of America in 2020, a 5G phone does diddly squat. Testing 5G phones, I’ve been clocking download speeds that are roughly the same as on 4G LTE ones. And in some places, like inside my house and along the California highway, my 5G phones actually have been slower.
My median download speed on AT&T was 32 Mbps with the 5G phone and 34 Mbps on the 4G one. On T-Mobile, I got 15 Mbps on the 5G phone and 13 Mbps on the 4G one. Verizon’s limited 5G network wasn’t available in my test area.
Perhaps California is a particularly difficult territory for these initial national 5G networks? Every neighborhood, smartphone model and even way you hold the phone can shape download performance — but I’m not the only one underwhelmed by nationwide 5G performance right now. I swapped results with firms that run network speed tests all over the country with volunteers and by roaming the streets.
RootMetrics, a network-analysis firm owned by IHS Markit, said that in the first half of the year, median AT&T 5G speeds were 46 Mbps, only slightly faster than the 4G LTE speed of 43 Mbps. At T-Mobile, speeds increased more as a percentage, but its median 5G speed of 25 Mbps still can’t even compete with its rivals’ 4G LTE speeds.
Another firm, Opensignal, said the average 5G phone download speed in the United States between May and August was 76 percent faster than a 4G phone download. But the overall download speed experience of Americans with 5G phones was just 33 Mbps, the second-slowest in the world.
When I asked executives at the networks about speed, they acknowledged a truth their advertisements carefully omit. “Our 5G experience initially is as good or better than our 4G LTE experience,” said Chris Sambar, AT&T’s executive vice president for technology operations. Let that sink in: At least for now, 5G is … only as good as 4G.
T-Mobile is equally circumspect, highlighting the range of its coverage, not its jaw-dropping speed. “We’re not claiming that this is where the story of 5G ends. It’s very much a beginning,” said Mark McDiarmid, the senior vice president for radio network engineering and development. He said right now T-Mobile’s 5G network is “two times as fast” as its 4G LTE nationwide average.
What should you do if you’re in the market for a phone this year or next? Abbi Siler, of Little Rock, told me a cautionary tale about upgrading early. Running her shop, Abbi’s Teas & Things, outdoors during the coronavirus pandemic, she relies on her cellphone to be her cash register. So a few weeks ago, her local AT&T shop encouraged her to buy a 5G-enabled $1,400 Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra. Like I experienced, her download speed where she needs it is unusably slow on AT&T’s 5G network. Just to keep her business running, she ended up buying an additional WiFi hotspot from a different carrier. “What a waste of money,” she told me.
There’s reason to hope America’s 5G situation will get better. But my advice is: Don’t upgrade in 2020 without a clear-eyed view of what 5G actually means where you live. Let me break it down in some ways you won’t hear in the store.
The truth about 5G in 2020
Many tech companies are counting on 5G for what’s next. It could unleash new connected devices — like smarter vehicles and medical equipment — that need faster downloads and less latency, which is the delay in the communication between connections. I’m excited about that.
But up first are smartphones. Carriers are pushing 5G phones to look competitive and to upgrade their systems to handle our crushing data demands. Smartphone makers are marketing 5G FOMO to fuel a “supercycle” of phone purchases after years of ho-hum upgrades.
Your experience with a 5G phone in 2020 is likely to be all over the map. I got searing fast 750 Mbps downloads from AT&T in one corner of downtown. But in the same spot, my 4G phone got an also extremely fast 330 Mbps. Moreover, because of the pandemic, those aren’t places I go very often. As I write this from my home office in the middle of San Francisco, I’m getting 11 Mbps downloads on my AT&T 5G phone. On T-Mobile, I get a laughable 8 Mbps on 5G, which is barely enough to stream HD Netflix.
5G’s current challenges — and future potential — are a product of how the technology has arrived here.
Like a three-layer cake, 5G comes in bands: low, mid and high. Each band requires access to radio spectrum from the Federal Communications Commission and cellular towers in the right places.
Right now, AT&T and T-Mobile are mostly using low band. This is not the tastiest bite of the 5G cake — it doesn’t deliver much faster download speeds than today’s 4G LTE networks, with which it shares spectrum. However, low-band 5G allows signals to travel the farthest and penetrate walls. Building out low band allowed T-Mobile and AT&T to claim their 5G is “nationwide,” serving at least 200 million customers.