It isn’t easy to wrap your head around 5G, and that’s because it doesn’t just mean one thing. You could have ultra-fast speeds in a tiny area or pretty-fast speeds in a wider area.
Scratch the surface and 5G, which stands for fifth-generation mobile network technology, is an insanely complicated orchestra of towers, nodes, beams and devices all using radio airwaves all at once.
It’s which slice of the radio frequency, also called spectrum, a carrier will use that makes the difference in the 5G experience you get. For example, Verizon’s Ultra Wideband anduse millimeter wave (mmWave), which runs at an extremely high frequency that shoots powerful signal a short distance away, and not through glass or buildings. This is where you see those ultrahigh speeds.
On the other hand, another swath of spectrum known as “sub-6 GHz” or just “sub-6” — the— to give you more coverage, though speeds won’t be nearly as high. You’ll see that and mmWave reflected in our peak speed results below.
In due time, some networks will join these approaches in their quest for fast, expansive 5G, even dipping into low-frequency bands to solve the problem of coverage over larger areas and through buildings. For example, T-Mobile hasbut plans to more publicly launch its next-generation service on the of the year, when devices become available.
Our glossary of popular 5G terms will explain a lot, and here’s one of the easiest to understand primers of mmWave and sub-6 to date.
The speeds: Awe-inspiring, sometimes
We conducted scores of 5G speed tests in Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, London and Sydney using the Speedtst.net benchmarking app.
If you’re solely looking at peak speeds, AT&T in LA easily reached the zenith, resulting in download speeds over 1.4Gbps in 8 out of 12 tests. Verizon was right behind, with a peak of 1.3Gbps down and multiple results over 1Gbps in several areas of downtown Chicago.
Sprint (Dallas), Telstra (Sydney) and EE (London and four other UK cities) used midband spectrum to achieve speeds in the 400 to 500 Mbps range, which might still be two to four times faster than your 4G phone and faster than your home Wi-Fi connection.
The progress is extremely promising in this nearly-pristine state with few real users. The real trick is for carriers to sustain these speeds once more subscribers join up and start clogging the lanes.
GLOBAL FIELD TESTS: PEAK 5G SPEEDS
|Peak download speed (Speedtest.net)||Location||5G technology||Phone||Test date|
|AT&T||1.8 Gbps||Los Angeles (Warner Bros. Studio)||mmWave||Galaxy S10 5G||June 22, 2019|
|Verizon||1.3 Gbps||Chicago||mmWave||Galaxy S10 5G||May 16, 2019|
|SK Telecom||618 Mbps||Seoul||Sub-6GHz||Galaxy S10 5G||June 27, 2019|
|T-Mobile||583 Mbps||New York||mmWave||Galaxy S10 5G||June 28, 2019|
|Telstra||489 Mbps||Sydney||Sub-6GHz||Oppo Reno 5G||June 20, 2019|
|Telstra||485 Mbps||Sydney||Sub-6GHz||LG V50||June 14, 2019|
|Sprint||484 Mbps||Dallas||Sub-6GHz||LG V50||May 30, 2019|
|EE||460 Mbps||London||Sub-6GHz||OnePlus 7 Pro 5G||June 15, 2019|
The coverage: We have a long way to go
The most valuable lesson we learned from our 5G field tests is that reliable, consistent coverage matters more than lightning speeds when it comes to a satisfying experience.
While the carriers build up 5G day by day, most of these towers and nodes are sprinkled across urban centers, which means you won’t get blanketed coverage as you move throughout the day, at least not yet.
US 5G snapshot: Of the four major US carriers, Sprint had the most consistent coverage. Its use of sub-6 spectrum meant we could even run speed tests in the car, something that Verizon and AT&T’s mmWave can’t do. Both Verizon and AT&T offered far higher speeds, even if they largely remain elusive. Verizon has only launched in two cities but plans to be in 30 by the end of the year. T-Mobile’s mmWave network didn’t give us the highs we expected in congested Manhattan, but real-world download speeds were apparent.
AT&T’s 5G is in 19 cities but is only available to select business customers. Aside from the Warner Bros. studio where we ran our 5G speed test, we’re not sure where to find AT&T’s service for phones. An important note about AT&T: Its 5GE service is not true 5G, but a form of advanced 4G LTE that every other carrier also employs. In some cases, AT&T’s “fake” 5G is slower than other 4G networks.
UK 5G snapshot: After testing 5G in five cities (one of those on two separate days) on EE’s network, the accuracy of the carrier’s coverage map brought on the biggest headaches. While speeds often soundly beat the existing 4G equivalents in our tests, inconsistent coverage means you’ll quickly lose the benefit of all that extra speed.
Australia’s 5G snapshot: The question of 5G is a sharp one in Australia, where onlookers wonder if the rollout could feasibly replace broadband for many. Although Australia’s major network, Telstra, is off to a good start with areas of 10 5G cities covered, data caps will present a huge problem, especially on SIM cards and plans with data limits. We found they add up fast.
Seoul 5G snapshot: We got the chance to run a few Speedtest.net benchmarking tests on the Galaxy S10 5G in downtown Seoul, near City Hall, courtesy of Cho Mu-Hyun, who writes for our sister site ZDNet. Results on SK Telecom’s network were three to four times faster than LTE in terms of download speed and up to twice the expected upload speed.
Temper your expectations, and go slow
Blazing speeds, a responsive network, and extensive coverage make up 5G’s Holy Grail. And while carriers want to act fast to build out their networks, the customer, should move slower. You may not have much of a choice if 5G isn’t live in your area.
5G phones are just trickling in, but today’s devices cost hundreds more than their 4G equivalents. For example, the Galaxy S10 Plus is $1,000 in the US, while the S10 5G comes in at $1,300 at Verizon. In a few months, a new 5G chip from Qualcomm will make these phones obsolete.
Your monthly data plan could eventually cost more, too, with Verizon temporarily waiving its plan to charge $10 more per month. Once more 5G cities come online, expect those premiums to appear in full, especially for unlimited plans.
It will be years until 5G fully replaces 4G, and as you start to become addicted to the new, faster speeds, be prepared for frustration and heartbreak when stumbling into areas with slow coverage, or when traveling to rural areas or countries where the expensive networks are still in development. Living with exponentially faster 5G speeds means you’ll feel it harder when they’re gone.
We have seen the birth of 5G. Now we’ve got to watch it grow up.