5G Wireless Technology –
For our 11th year of speed testing major wireless networks across the country, we drove to 26 US cities to see if 5G lives up to the hype. The answer: Not quite yet. While Verizon regains the title of fastest mobile network in our first nationwide 4G and 5G test, the carrier still has very little coverage. And AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s 5G networks don’t help their overall performance much.
We’ve been testing and rating mobile networks since 2010, and this is the strangest network transition we’ve ever seen. For one thing, we’re in the midst of a global pandemic. Rather than have a fewer number of drivers work their way down the east or west coasts testing multiple cities at a time, this year we had two dozen local drivers test their own cities under our supervision using Samsung Galaxy S10 and S20 series phones. We chose these phones because they offer the best 4G and 5G performance available, with the S20 supporting all the different types of 5G US carriers have to offer.
We provide individual results for each of our test cities so you can see which carrier is the fastest where you live. Click into the map above or check out the list at the bottom of this page to see your home city or the one closest to you.
The Fastest Mobile Network for 2020: Verizon
As you can see, Verizon takes the crown this year in a tight race with AT&T. Of the 26 cities we tested, Verizon won 13 of them, AT&T took 12, and T-Mobile grabbed one. The good news is that speeds are generally up across the board for all carriers compared with last year, even if that’s largely the result of improved 4G performance rather than the emergence of 5G.
So Wait…5G Isn’t as Fast as 4G?
We admit it, we bought into the 5G hype. Carriers, phone makers, and chip makers alike have all been selling 5G as faster and more powerful than 4G, with lower latency. So I was shocked to see that our AT&T 5G results, especially, were slower than 4G results on the same network.
This is a crisis for marketing, not for performance. All three US carriers showed significantly higher download speeds and better broadband reliability than they did in our 2019 tests. It’s just that these gains, particularly on AT&T, are largely because of improvements in 4G, not 5G networks.
The good news is, with few exceptions, you don’t need to rush out and buy a 5G phone. We’ll highlight on each of our individual city pages where we think it’s smartest to buy a 5G device.
5G networks in the US have three layers: broad but slow low-band, citywide mid-band, and hard to find, but fast high-band
There’s some precedent for this year’s results. Looking back at Fastest Mobile Networks 2012, we found the 4G installed by then-carrier MetroPCS was slower than AT&T’s 3G network in many places, for the same reason that AT&T’s 5G network is now slow. “Gs“ aren’t magic. A new generation just lets carriers use more spectrum than they could before—but if they don’t have that spectrum available, they won’t get that performance. AT&T’s low-band 5G is currently on channels that are too narrow to matter, like MetroPCS’s 4G LTE was.
When we first started testing, we surveyed six carriers: AT&T, Cricket, MetroPCS, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. Now, with the retirement of the Sprint brand in August, there are three nationwide carriers: AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon. The Cricket and MetroPCS names live on as prepaid offerings from AT&T and T-Mobile, respectively. US Cellular covers mostly rural areas in many states, but it doesn’t have service in enough of the major cities we test to be part of our study.
So far, T-Mobile’s absorption of Sprint hasn’t shown much advantage for consumers. It’s to the contrary, really: In our results, it looks like the rush of Sprint users onto T-Mobile’s network has created some congestion that has caused T-Mobile to fall behind in comparative performance. All of the carriers’ speeds increased from 2019 to 2020, but T-Mobile’s increased less than AT&T’s and Verizon’s did.
Verizon and AT&T have dueled for the fastest download speeds over the past 10 years
T-Mobile pleads patience, saying that once it’s able to properly reuse Sprint’s spectrum for 5G, performance will improve. That promise appears to be bearing fruit in a few cities, but T-Mobile must move faster to make that real.
Both AT&T and T-Mobile claim nationwide 5G coverage
Faux G vs. No G
It’s been more than a year since the US carriers launched 5G. AT&T purports to have 5G in 22 of our 26 test cities; Verizon has it in 18; and T-Mobile has it in all of them. But our 5G results were disappointing all around, on every carrier. Often, it was a choice between faux G (we’ll explain this shortly) and no G.
AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon take very different approaches to 5G. To make a long story short, AT&T 5G right now appears to be essentially worthless. T-Mobile 5G can be a big boost over 4G, but its speeds are only what we’d expect from a good 4G network—it isn’t a new experience. Verizon’s 5G is often mind-blowing, but very difficult to find.
AT&T’s 5G slices off a narrow bit of the old 850MHz cellular band and assigns it to 5G, to give phones a valid 5G icon without increasing performance. And because of the way current 5G phones work, it often reduces performance. At locations with both 4G and 5G, our 5G phone was slower than our 4G phone in 21 out of 22 cities.
AT&T’s 4G network relies on assembling several different 4G channels from a wide range of frequencies. The most recent phones are able to assemble up to seven of them—that’s called seven-carrier aggregation, and it’s why AT&T won last year. AT&T’s 4G performance continues to be excellent this year, and that 4G is how the carrier won nearly half of our cities.
But 5G phones can’t add as many 4G channels to a 5G channel. So if they’re in 5G mode, they’re giving up 4G channels so they can use that extremely narrow, often 5MHz 5G channel, and the result is slower performance: faux G. For AT&T, using a 5G phone in testing was often a step backward from our 4G-only phone.
AT&T also says it has a fast, “5G+” high-band network in 35 cities. I’ve tested it in Dallas, Las Vegas, and New York. Unfortunately, AT&T doesn’t offer maps of that network, and our drivers never seemed to encounter it, even though they went near locations where I’ve tested it before.
AT&T millimeter-wave panels on a rooftop in New York
T-Mobile uses a somewhat wider low-band 5G channel than AT&T does. T-Mobile’s 5G speeds were faster than 4G speeds at the same locations in 19 test cities, and they were slower in seven. T-Mobile is also starting to use mid-band 5G, which might be the sweet spot. In Philadelphia, a mid-band city, T-Mobile’s 5G was 122 percent faster than its 4G. In Washington, another mid-band city, it was 330 percent faster than 4G. T-Mobile also has a high-band 5G network in seven cities, but we didn’t see any results that just screamed out “high-band 5G.”
However, T-Mobile’s 4G speeds suffered this year, which is why it only won one city. I have some theories about this. T-Mobile is in the middle of integrating a huge number of Sprint customers, who have been given access to T-Mobile’s network. We’ve seen networks slow down because of congestion before; most famously, it happened when Verizon got the iPhone in 2011. T-Mobile is handling the influx of new customers on its network decently, in most places, but the flood may be setting it back somewhat.
T-Mobile says that ultimately, its customers will benefit as it clears out Sprint’s mid-band 4G spectrum and reuses it all for mid-band 5G. That very well may be the case, and the results we see from Philadelphia and Washington are hopeful. But for now, it’s struggling a little in the transition phase.
It’s worth mentioning that neither AT&T’s nor T-Mobile’s 5G networks are faster than the Bell and Telus 4G networks in Canada. Bell and Telus were able to outpace our 5G technologies without a lick of 5G.
So you have to ask, why are AT&T and T-Mobile even bothering, other than their desire to market having 5G? Marketing is a big deal, but I believe their engineers when they tell me that it just comes down to 5G being the future. Even though the carriers don’t have enough spectrum to make a difference with 5G yet, as they install new network hardware, it’s all 5G-capable, so they might as well turn it on.
I’m talking a lot about 5G in this piece when the US market is still mainly filled with 4G devices. But I think 5G adoption is going to rise sharply over the next year, whether or not you’re actually seeking a 5G phone. Already, all flagship Samsung phones are 5G, and we’ll likely see 5G iPhones appear this October. 5G phones are getting cheaper, too, with T-Mobile’s new Revvl 5G coming in at under $400.
Carriers are making a lot of promises around the new technology, some of which we may see realized over the upcoming year. You can read up on those promises in our feature on What Is 5G? We’ve been waiting for 5G home internet to start bridging the digital divide since that was first promised in late 2018. Verizon has that service in very limited parts of a few cities, but swears we’ll see more action on that by the end of this year. 5G home internet is also part of what T-Mobile promised the government when it absorbed Sprint, though we haven’t see it yet.
Beyond that, though, there are potential new applications as radical as how the mobile web changed our lives with 3G and social media changed our lives with 4G. Way back at a hackathon in 2017, I saw how 5G could help parents connect with infants in NICUs. The CEO of OnePlus mused that 5G may make local storage obsolete; the president of Qualcomm said it may mean you’ll never again have to upgrade a game console. Using 5G (and 6G) as a sort of quality-controlled, industrial “super Wi-Fi,” I’ve seen demos on future holographic communication and super-precise robotic surgery at South Korea’s T.um. Qualcomm’s XR2 headset and Spatial software put you in realistic, augmented reality social or business meetings, and with 5G you don’t need to be right near a router to do it.
Verizon offers the only form of 5G that delivers a genuinely different experience from 4G—but there’s hardly any of it available. Verizon’s millimeter-wave 5G showed speeds up to 2Gbps and latencies well under 10ms. That can enable radical new augmented and virtual reality apps in the future. But we didn’t record Verizon 5G at more than 11 percent of locations in any city, and availability was more often down at two to three percent.
Millimeter-wave uses very weak, short-range panels that are easily blocked by obstacles. In our tests, millimeter-wave doesn’t generally penetrate buildings, and even has trouble with glass; we had our drivers keep their windows down, with the phones facing out, so the network even had a chance.
Verizon’s high-band system delivers great speeds, but in very limited locations
No carrier’s 5G is living up to latency promises yet. Lag won’t work for multiplayer games or VR, or new applications like telepresence and remote surgery. The idea of using 5G as a protected super-Wi-Fi with high quality of service in part relies on low latency.
Most of our testing was on 5G networks that use 4G for their initial handshakes, and so don’t have much better latency than 4G. But we saw glimpses of a new world. T-Mobile’s network in Baltimore, Boston, New York, Providence, and Washington showed latencies of 10-15ms. That’s better than we’ve ever seen from 4G.
But wait: Verizon’s 5G in Kansas City and San Diego had latencies under 10ms, with several other cities in the 10-11ms range. According to Qualcomm, once you get under 7ms or so, magic starts to happen for VR applications. This helps support our contention that Verizon’s 5G is the only truly transformative one so far.
All of this may make you wonder when AT&T and T-Mobile will get transformative 5G speeds, and when Verizon will get plenty of 5G coverage. Verizon plans to announce nationwide 5G later this year using a technology called DSS that splits existing 4G channels into 4G and 5G based on requested load. Since it doesn’t offer any wider channels, that probably won’t be much faster than Verizon’s existing 4G.
What the carriers need is either new spectrum for 5G, or ways to extend the speedy high-band 5G to more people. That’s on its way, although not immediately. In my analysis, it takes at least 50MHz of dedicated 5G spectrum to make a real difference. Mid-band frequencies, between 2GHz and 7GHz, have the most promise as they can cover cities relatively easily. T-Mobile already has that available through its Sprint purchase; it just has to turn it on. A fresh 280MHz, called C-Band, will be auctioned at the end of this year—that will probably be split up between the three carriers and launched in 2021. Another 100MHz will go up for grabs in mid-2022.
Meanwhile, Verizon is working on ways to extend its high-band network. The company made a deal with Pivotal Commware, which makes neighborhood repeaters that can extend 5G coverage. Future phone and base station chipsets can also extend high-band 5G range. This won’t just benefit Verizon. Although Verizon makes the biggest deal about its high-band 5G, all three major carriers have nationwide high-band holdings.
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Our driving in 2020 was very different from previous years because of two big changes: 5G and the COVID-19 crisis.
Traditionally, we’d tour each city and then test rural areas between cities before moving on to the next one. But that involves flights, rental cars, and hotels, none of which we felt safe using this year. So we hired roughly two dozen drivers to each test their own cities, in their own cars, sleeping in their own beds, shipping the testing kits from place to place. The result is a nationwide, COVID-safe test, but without the rural data we usually provide.
We used Samsung Galaxy S10 and Galaxy S20 phones (pictured) for testing speeds
5G was an even bigger change. AT&T offers 5G in 22 of our test cities, T-Mobile has it in all 26, and Verizon has 5G in 16. With most people in the US still using 4G phones, we wanted to check out the difference between 4G and 5G performance, so we had separate sets of 4G and 5G phones running tests offset by 60 seconds from each other.
Initially, we expected the 5G phones to always show better speeds than 4G. We were shocked to find that often wasn’t the case. So for each test stop, we ended up choosing the best result from each of the two devices on the same network, no matter what G they were on.
We used Samsung Galaxy S10 series phones for 4G and Samsung Galaxy S20 series phones for 5G. The S10s were chosen because they have the best-performing 4G modems we’ve tested. The S20s were chosen because at the time of testing, they were the only phones that could handle the entire “layer cake” of 5G bands—low, middle, and high.
Our drivers stopped in at least 12 locations per city, for 15 minutes per stop. Test results at each location were averaged out into an overall result for that location. Then, results for all locations were averaged into an overall city score, with all of the “mobile” results collected between stops being averaged into two virtual “locations.”
What people really want is a consistent broadband experience—they don’t care what the icon on their phone says. So our overall scores reflect that. We used a weighted average with the following variables:
While we mention how frequently we saw 5G on our charts, it doesn’t factor into the overall score. Whether a phone has a 4G or a 5G icon on it is technically interesting, but what really matters to consumers is the experience, not the technology. If a carrier’s 4G network is faster than another carrier’s 5G network, we’re not going to give that 5G carrier points.
5G Is Still the Future
Despite many of our findings, I still believe that 5G is going to change how we live. But it isn’t going to do so the way US carriers are currently rolling it out. The networks we’re seeing aren’t a “fourth industrial revolution,” or whatever else the carriers are using to pitch 5G this month.
Instead, most of our current 5G coverage offers people a slightly improved 4G experience dressed up with a shiny new icon. That’s not bad, but to live up to their lofty promises about how 5G will change education, medicine, industry, and home internet, the carriers will need to use more spectrum and better technology than they’re currently giving us.
For more on the nation’s 5G rollout, see our monthly updates and carrier score card over at The Race to 5G.
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