The latest cellular network standard, 5G, has finally come of age. Over the past two years, U.S. carriers have rolled out their 5G networks far and wide, collectively bringing 5G available to over 90% of the country’s population, it’s become pretty hard to find a modern smartphone that doesn’t offer at least some flavor of 5G connectivity.
This means that unless you haven’t upgraded your phone in a while or you live in a rural area that’s not yet within the reach of 5G, there’s a good chance you already have a 5G smartphone and have experienced at least some 5G coverage. Still, with all the excitement around 5G technology, you may be wondering exactly how fast it’s really supposed to be — especially if your experience doesn’t match up to the hype.
Just like the 4G/LTE networks that have been around for the past decade or so, there are a lot of factors that add up to determine whether you get the fastest and best 5G speeds, including your choice of phone, your carrier, how far you are away from the best towers, and how many people you’re sharing those towers with. However, these are more pronounced in the 5G era since the newer technology leaves us hoping for faster speeds, and yet 5G runs on a broader spectrum of frequencies, which mixes things up even more.
There’s no doubt that 5G offers a lot of benefits over 4G, but like any new technology, there have been some growing pains it’s had to work through. Thankfully, we’re past the early stages of 5G deployments, and performance and coverage across all carriers is significantly better now than it was two years ago. Here’s everything you need to know.
Theoretically, 5G offers the potential for staggering 10Gbps speeds that would have been unthinkable in the early days of cellular technology. However, like reading any spec sheet, it’s important to remember that these are theoretical maximums that you’ll likely never hit in the real world.
One significant thing to keep in mind is that this 10Gbps number that’s often cited refers to the maximum total bandwidth available to all 5G devices connected to a single radio transceiver on a cellular tower. Individual devices have neither the chips nor the antennas to reach these kinds of speeds even when sitting right beside a tower; instead, the 10Gbps is designed to be shared across dozens, or even hundreds, of devices, ensuring that everyone can get the best possible performance. It’s the same principle that’s true on a smaller scale with the Wi-Fi 6 router in your home.
While we hate to use the word “never,” we’re pretty unlikely to see any consumer devices hitting these peak 5G speeds, at least not before we see the rollout of next-generation 6G technology.
However, just to add a bit of perspective, here’s a table to compare the theoretical speeds of 5G technology against different generations of wireless technology:
|Generation||2.5G (GPRS)||2.75G (EDGE)||3G||3G HSPA+||4G||4G LTE-A||5G|
Again, remember that all these numbers are theoretical maximums. Nobody ever got 1Gbps download speeds on 4G LTE-A, and as quaint as it now sounds, those of us who remember the halcyon days of EDGE data would have scoffed at the idea of even getting 300Mpbs on an original 2007 iPhone or Nokia N95.
Likewise, the averages here are approximate, and all the different technologies complicate the results because each generation has evolved and continues to grow even after the next generation starts to roll out. There’s also the issue of carriers mislabeling their networks; many labeled 3G HSPA+ as 4G, and there was also AT&T’s “5G E” stunt a few years ago, which tried to convince customers that 4G LTE-A was a “5G Evolution.”
Complicating things further, there are three different “flavors” of 5G that can dramatically affect your actual download speeds, depending on which one you’re connected to. Unlike the cellular technologies that came before, 5G has spread across a much more extensive range of frequencies, and the ones that offer the fastest speeds tend to be available in the fewest places.
This isn’t the carriers conspiring to limit speeds but rather just the laws of physics at work. If you’ve ever set up a dual-band or tri-band Wi-Fi router in your home, you’ve probably already encountered the reality that the lower 2.4GHz frequencies cover more area but deliver much slower speeds than the shorter-range 5GHz radios. The same applies to cellular frequencies on a much grander scale.
This isn’t the carriers conspiring to limit speeds but rather just the laws of physics at work.
While 5G runs across many more bands, these can be categorized into three distinct groups. Low-band 5G generally includes all the frequencies that operate below 2.3GHz which provide extensive reach but speeds that are little better than 4G/LTE. It also doesn’t help that 5G often runs on the same frequencies as 4G/LTE signals and therefore has to yield right-of-way to that older traffic using a newer 5G technology known as Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS). This means that 4G/LTE devices always get priority on those frequencies, slowing 5G users down even more.
On the other end, high-band mmWave operates in the relative stratosphere of Extremely High Frequency (EHF) radio signals, starting at around 24GHz, delivering fantastic speeds but cover that doesn’t go much beyond a city block. More recently, carriers have found a sweet spot with midrange 5G, which starts at around 2.5GHz and includes the 3.7–3.98GHz C-band frequencies. These deliver the best of both worlds, offering decent range without compromising too much on performance.
There’s also an additional consideration here when it comes to these frequencies and overall speeds. As we touched on earlier, nobody’s smartphone lives in a vacuum; you’re sharing these frequencies with everybody else connected to the same tower as you are. Whatever bandwidth that tower has available has to be divvied up between every device that wants a slice of it. This is why you’ll typically find the fastest mmWave transceivers in built-up areas like stadiums and airports, where you could easily have 70,000 people vying for 5G service.
So, how does this play out in the real world? Well, the extensive range of low-band 5G means that the “nationwide” networks on all three carriers rely on these frequencies to reach as many people as possible. While T-Mobile was the first to roll out a nationwide 5G network to all 50 states, it relied on its 600MHz spectrum — the bottom of the cellular frequency range and the slowest of them all. AT&T parked most of its low-band 5G on the 850MHz and 1900MHz (1.9GHz) range, piggybacking it on its 4G/LTE towers using DSS. Verizon was last to go nationwide in late 2022, deploying its low-band 5G network in mostly the same way that AT&T had.
The results of these early rollouts were 5G speeds that were rarely much better than 4G/LTE and, in some cases, may have even been worse. In fact, in late 2020, Verizon’s DSS was so bad that PCMag’s Sascha Segan dubbed it a “desperately slow system” and told Verizon iPhone users they were better off disabling 5G entirely.
Thankfully, a lot has changed since then. By early 2021, T-Mobile has already begun rolling out what it now calls its 5G Ultra Capacity network, a mid-band 2.5GHz 5G service using the spectrum it picked up from its merger with Sprint. A year later, Verizon joined the game with its newly-acquired 3.7–3.98GHz C-band spectrum, expanding its 5G Ultra Wideband network well beyond the extremely rare mmWave towers it had set up in urban centers. AT&T also began rolling out its own block of C-band spectrum around the same time, although it’s been doing so much more conservatively.
Today, you’ll generally find that most urban areas are covered by midband 5G, at least on Verizon and T-Mobile. In March, Verizon revealed that its 5G Ultra Wideband network now covers over 200 million people, while T-Mobile’s 5G Ultra Capacity covers 275 million as of July, and it plans to reach 300 million by the end of 2023. Sadly, AT&T continues to lag behind, with its 5G Plus network only available in “limited areas” of about 50 cities.
These differences in coverage are reflected in the latest market reports from Ookla and Opensignal, which measure median and average 5G download speeds and other performance metrics across the United States. These reports come out every three months, and while T-Mobile has maintained a consistent lead thanks to its big head start on midrange 5G deployments, Verizon has been slowly edging closer, while AT&T’s poorer coverage leaves it trailing behind as all the folks on its low-band DSS 5G pull down its scores.
The latest numbers show T-Mobile way ahead with an overall average/median of around 200Mbps, while Verizon clocks in at around 100Mbps, and AT&T comes in at 80Mbps
Verizon has been slowly edging closer, while AT&T’s poorer coverage leaves it trailing behind.
Of course, median and average download speeds don’t tell the whole story. If anything, they mostly just reflect how many people are getting the best speeds on each carrier’s network. Under ideal conditions, Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband (5G UW) service can provide the same peak speeds as T-Mobile’s 5G Ultra Capacity (5G UC); it’s just that T-Mobile customers are twice as likely to find 5G UC coverage than those on Verizon, who will likely find themselves more often dropping to slower low-band 5G.
Nevertheless, much of this depends on where you live, work, and otherwise travel. Many Verizon and even AT&T customers are very happy with their 5G performance because they’re fortunate enough never to wander away from their carriers’ 5G UW or 5G+ networks.
Lastly, the speeds highlighted in these reports shouldn’t be taken as the maximum speeds you’ll get on each carrier’s network. Many T-Mobile and Verizon customers have seen peak 5G speeds of well over 1Gbps. That’s especially true with mmWave coverage, but 1Gbps isn’t out of reach on C-band frequencies. Plus, T-Mobile has been playing with 5G carrier aggregation (5G CA) technology that could let customers reach mmWave-like 3Gbps speeds by combining longer-range midband frequencies.
As impressive as these download speeds sound on paper, the reality is that most smartphone users really don’t need to pull down the massive amounts of data that would make them necessary. Consider that even a 4K UHD video stream typically only requires speeds of about 25–40Mbps. Where 5G makes the biggest impact on mobile devices isn’t download speeds — it’s latency.
Latency refers to how long it takes to establish connections over a digital communication network, and it’s a much more important metric for the way we typically use our smartphones. For example, surfing the web, chatting via instant messaging apps, and gaming all rely on dozens or even hundreds of individual connections that exchange relatively small bits of data. The fastest download speeds won’t help here if each connection takes longer to establish, just like having the fastest jet plane in the world to deliver a package won’t do you much good if the crew takes an unreasonably long time to load it up and get it off the runway.
“The arrival of 5G will undoubtedly bring higher speeds for end users — but those speeds will vary depending on how operators design their networks and how many users are on the network,” Els Baert, director of marketing and communications at NetComm, told Digital Trends in an interview. “Although 5G will be able to deliver higher speeds, the main difference end users will notice will be the extra-low latency on 5G compared to 3G or 4G — this will open up new applications in the Internet of Things space.”
Where 5G makes the biggest impact on mobile devices isn’t download speeds — it’s latency.
According to a white paper from the Next Generation Mobile Networks Alliance, which helped establish standards, 5G networks should offer 10ms latency in general and 1ms for special cases that require lower latency. The report also suggests that “data rates up to 1Gbps should be supported in some specific environments, like indoor offices, while at least 50Mbps shall be available everywhere.”
The good news is that these lower latencies aren’t dependent on having the best 5G download speeds. In fact, despite offering slower speeds, Verizon often wins in Opensignal’s reports when it comes to 5G gaming experiences. Ookla’s reports also show Verizon and T-Mobile are neck-in-neck when it comes to median multi-server latency, which measures how long it takes to ping various servers around the internet.
Although 5G service and 5G phones are now widely available, it’s not the superfast replacement to 4G that many have dreamed of, and there’s a good chance it will never fully live up to the hype, at least not for those who measure its success by raw download speeds.
There are pockets even today where you can get mind-blowing multi-gigabit download speeds, but those are still rare exceptions, and while they’ll likely become a bit more common, they’ll always be offset by slower 5G in congested mid-band areas and, of course, the low-band 5G zones where you’ll notice minor speed improvements at best. Carriers simply aren’t about to deploy the millions of towers across the U.S. landscape that would be needed to deliver ultrafast 5G performance everywhere, and the last few market reports have suggested that average 5G speeds are plateauing at the 200Mbps mark.
Still, what’s important isn’t the raw speed but rather the other improvements that 5G brings to the table, including the low latency that will make our smartphones feel much more responsive and enable technologies like autonomous cars to exchange data near-instantaneously. Plus, as 4G/LTE slowly rides off into the sunset, low-band 5G frequencies will no longer need to contend with sharing the digital highway, resulting in better speeds for those who live or wander into less populated areas covered only by low-band 5G.