How fast is 5G really? OpenSignal and Reviews.org provide answers

Most IEEE Techblog readers know that 5G speeds are dependent on the spectrum used, with mmWave providing by far the fastest bit rates.

  • Millimeter wave spectrum, championed by Verizon, is available in very large block widths, and can therefore deliver very high speeds. But coverage (propagation) is very poor.
  • Low frequency spectrum offers very good coverage, but poor speeds.
  • The sweet spot for 5G is therefore mid-band spectrum*, which offers the most compelling blend of coverage and capacity/speed.

*  According to telecom research analyst Craig Moffett, not all mid-band spectrum is the same. The propagation differences between T-Mobile’s 2.5 GHz spectrum and the 3.7 to 4.2 GHz C-Band spectrum that will be auctioned off in a matter of weeks (and which is likely to be the cornerstone of Verizon’s future mid-band deployments) are dramatic. For a given cell site, the area covered in open space by T-Mobile’s 2.5 GHz will likely be 10x greater than that covered by a cell site in the C-Band.

OpenSignal examined 5G download speeds in five U.S. cities and found that Verizon is crushing it compared to the other big wireless carriers, so far. But some, including T-Mobile’s President of Technology Neville Ray, have questioned the wisdom of leading a 5G strategy with mmWave deployments. Verizon’s early lead with the high-band spectrum could begin to vanish as the other two carriers’ 5G deployments mature.

In OpenSignal’s latest research, Verizon’s 5G download speeds ranged from 338 Mbps to 508.3 Mbps in five cities: Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, New York and Washington D.C.  This compares to download speeds from AT&T and T-Mobile, ranging from 44.9 Mbps to 143.3 Mbps.

In each of the five cities, the average 5G download speed was over three times faster using Verizon than on either AT&T or T-Mobile. But OpenSignal notes that most of these measurements were taken before Verizon’s launch of its Nationwide 5G, which includes the use of lower frequency bands. As Verizon adds more lower frequency spectrum into the mix, its lead on speed will likely decline.

OpenSignal’s lead analyst Ian Fogg said the variation in mmWave download speeds depends on how each carrier has deployed. Verizon has deployed very densely in some urban areas while the other two carriers have deployed less densely. One of the big downsides to mmWave is its limited propagation. Fogg said, “If you’re on the edge of the range of the signal, you may get more error correction,” among other factors that will slow the speed.

OpenSignal chart 1

OpenSignal also reported on mmWave upload speeds, which are drastically lower than mmWave download speeds.

Since cellular networks are asymmetric, upload speeds are always much slower. “If you are sending information from a large antenna on a cell site, it’s easy to transmit down to a small phone,” said Fogg. “But when the phone is transmitting back, you have a small battery device that’s transmitting in the other direction.”

But since upload is used for such things as sharing photos and videos, consumers are going to want faster and faster upload speeds. Fogg noted that the cameras of smartphones get improved in each new generation, becoming more capable of high-resolution images that result in larger file sizes.

Aside from 5G being used to improve mobile broadband, the technology also promises to earn its return on investment for business use cases. One of those use cases will be fixed wireless access (FWA) deployments. In that case, the upload constraints could be mitigated by the types of devices deployed. Fogg noted that for FWA “you don’t have a battery constraint in the same way.” He said, “You’ll probably have a smaller antenna than you would on a cell tower. There’s still an asymmetry dynamic, but not quite the same.”

There are three notable 5G developments:

  • Verizon nationwide 5G. After October 13, Verizon started its nationwide 5G rollout using dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) to allow Verizon to offer 5G on lower frequency spectrum bands that are also available for use simultaneously for Verizon’s 4G users. The use of lower frequency bands will change the nature of Verizon’s 5G service compared with the exclusively mmWave service used beforehand, likely increasing 5G Availability but lowering average 5G Download Speeds.
  • T-Mobile’s mid-band 5G extension. Similar to Verizon, T-Mobile is also altering the mix of 5G spectrum it uses for its 5G service. In the last quarter of 2020, T-Mobile is aiming to greatly expand the reach of its 2.5GHz mid-band 5G service to many more cities which should enable faster speeds. The company claims its mid-band coverage will increase from 30 million to 100 million people by the end of 2020. It is also looking to extend the reach of its standalone 5G technology which should help T-Mobile to improve its 5G Availability as well.
  • The arrival of the 5G iPhone. All iPhone 12 models support both 5G and mmWave 5G in the U.S. and their arrival should accelerate 5G adoption. The first units arrived in customers’ hands on October 23. Apple’s smartphones are a key part of the U.S. wireless market. AT&T in particular was the first carrier to market the iPhone and it continues to have a strong iPhone share. This launch means all major smartphone makers offer 5G models. It also means that the U.S. wireless customers who prefer Apple — approximately half of U.S. mobile users — now have a 5G option that the carriers can market.

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To help consumers understand the difference between current 4G internet speeds and 5G internet speeds, Reviews.org crunched the numbers to put these speeds into perspective:

What this illustrates is that the jump from 4G to 5G is not a minor boost, according to Joe Hanlan of Reviews.org. A decade ago it seemed impossible to imagine watching TV and movies on our phones, and now it is something that lots of people do every day. New 5G networks will open up our gadgets to a range of new possibilities, and while it is hard to imagine exactly the kinds of things we’ll be doing in a decade from now, our 5G future makes it possible.

To compare flight durations to mobile network speeds, REVIEWS.org sourced average download speeds from 4G and 5G networks from Opensignal. The research firm then converted the difference in speeds between networks to a non-stop flight from Perth to London (17:20 duration).

References:

https://www.opensignal.com/2020/11/24/understanding-5g-availability-in-us-cities

https://www.fiercewireless.com/5g/verizon-s-5g-mmwave-crushing-it-but-for-how-long

5G speeds: here’s how much faster new internet speeds will be

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