The speed of 4G changed the way we use our smartphones and made possible the rise of mobile apps, streaming video and services that we would have never imagined with 3G. But 5G is now here (at least in some cities), offering even faster speeds and lower latency than today’s advanced LTE networks can even dream of providing.
We haven’t reached the holy grail yet. In our testing of 5G networks in a handful of cities across the country, we haven’t seen the sustained gigabit speeds that the fifth generation of connectivity promises. But that will change, experts predict.
Here’s what we expect from 5G when next-gen networks blanket the nation, and what we’ve seen when we've done 5G vs 4G comparisons so far.
5G speed: 5G vs. 4G download speeds compared
5G: Promise vs. reality
Max download speeds of hundreds of megabits per second only seem impressive until you compare them to 5G’s potential. Both Verizon and AT&T expect speeds on their 5G networks to eventually hit 10 Gbps.
Early testing has yielded speeds nowhere close to that target, but that’s because carriers need more spectrum to fully take advantage of 5G’s potential. The millimeter-wave high-band spectrum that AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile have used to launch their initial 5G networks will be rounded out with mid- and low-band spectrum to enable 5G signals that offer both lightning fast speeds and reliable coverage. Indeed, both T-Mobile and AT&T launched separate 5G networks based on low-band spectrum in December, and while speed are only a little bit better than 4G (at least in the case of T-Mobile's 5G network, which we've tested), the signals have a more extensive reach.
But even early 5G networks are much faster than their LTE predecessors. According to a new Opensignal report, 5G networks in the U.S. are seeing max download speeds that are almost three times faster than the peaks on 4G LTE networks, at 1.8 Gbps versus 678 Mbps. (We’ve yet to see peak speeds that high in our networking testing on either 5G or 4G networks in the U.S.)
AT&T says its 5G E network (which is really an advanced form of LTE) averages speeds up to two times faster than downloads over its standard 4G LTE network. According to the carrier, its millimeter-wave based 5G Plus service, available in 23 cities as of December 2019, is already capable of gigabit speeds. Verizon says its 5G network is also hitting gigabit speeds, in some cases clearing 2 Gbps. Sprint set expectations for its 5G network lower, with peak speeds of 1 Gbps and an average of 150 Mbps. Meanwhile, T-Mobile is focusing on its low-band 5G network, for now, since that service reaches 5,000 cities; speeds on that slower network are only expected to be 20% faster than LTE for now.
In our early testing of 5G networks, the carriers’ claims have proven (mostly) true. Sprint’s network, which uses mid-band spectrum, is slower but more reliable than AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon’s networks, which rely on high-band millimeter-wave spectrum. That enables faster speeds, but also requires people to be closer to a cell site to catch a 5G signal; it’s also more difficult to get pick up 5G coverage indoors on millimeter-wave. We compared Verizon’s mmWave-based network to Sprint’s mid-band 5G in Chicago and found faster speeds on Verizon, but more reliable coverage on Sprint, especially indoors.
We saw download speeds in excess of 1 Gbps from Verizon in Chicago, and speeds in the 900 Mbps range from AT&T's 5G Plus network in Las Vegas. (We haven't had a chance to test AT&T's just-launched low-band band 5G network yet.) T-Mobile’s mmWave 5G network in New York was more widespread than the pockets of coverage we saw in Chicago and Vegas, but only reached 600 Mbps.
Sprint’s slower 5G network turned up top speeds ranging from 350 to 450 Mbps in Dallas, hovering under 200 Mbps for most tests, but blanketed more of the city than mmWave. In Chicago, we saw similar results from Sprint, but at least we could catch a 5G signal indoors.
As for T-Mobile's nationwide 5G network, the low-band spectrum means speeds reach between 100 to 200 Mbps at their peak, but in most cases are in line with what you'd expect from 4G. (In most cases, T-Mobile's 5G speeds are faster than 4G on this network, but in some instances — usually indoors — we saw faster speeds on a 4G phone.) Instead, T-Mobile is more concerned with increasing access to 5G with this low-band network for now, as this form of 5G reaches 200 million people.
5G vs 4G: What you can do with extra speed
5G is already up to 10 times faster than 4G, which is insanely cool. Theoretically, 5G devices will able to reach peaks of 10 Gbps. But what does a person actually do with all that speed?
Well, in daily life, little annoyances like forgetting to download a full-length movie before a flight will disappear. 5G will enable gigabit downloads in seconds. Even now, before 5G is fully built out, I was able to download a 1-hour, 48-minute movie in just 49 seconds over AT&T’s 5G Plus network, which hit peak speeds of 956 Mbps in my testing. Even on T-Mobile's slower low-band 5G network, we could download the 3.5-hour movie The Irishman in less than 3 minutes off Netflix.
Adriane Blum, Ookla’s marketing director, said you’ll still be able to do all the “same things you did prior to 5G rolling out, but what’s going to happen is it will happen at a clip that will feel like the blink of an eye.”
It isn’t just 5G’s crazy-fast peak speeds that will improve our lives. The new generation of connectivity will also improve average speeds, because carriers are able to make use of new frequencies that were previously unused for mobile, opening up capacity.
“You’re raising the maximum speed, but you’re also raising the speed at the worst time of day in the worst location,” said Ian Fogg, Opensignal’s vice president of analysis.
That means when you use your phone in congested areas, you’ll still have reliable connectivity.
But perhaps even more importantly, there are changes we don’t see coming.
“This kind of conversation has come up at the evolution of every new wave of technology,” Blum said. “Before 4G was ubiquitously available, people weren’t streaming content on their phones. There just wasn’t the bandwidth. And now that’s something people primarily do on their phones. Whether or not we imagine it, consumers find a way to use it.”
Beyond faster speeds, 5G will also deliver lower latency. We haven’t been able to put that to the test yet, but according to experts, 5G will reduce latency to less than 1 millisecond. 4G latency currently hovers between 42.2 and 60.5 milliseconds in tests across 40 major U.S. cities, according to Opensignal, which is still long enough to be perceptible when using augmented reality or virtual reality. The reduction in latency is expected to make AR and VR ubiquitous.
5G vs 4G price: How much more does faster speed cost?
Three of the four major carriers aren't charging a premium for 5G data plans yet — though that could change.
Verizon’s 5G data costs an extra $10 a month, on top of an existing unlimited data plan. At the moment, Verizon is waiving that fee for subscribers with Play More ($80/month), Do More ($80/month) and Get More plans ($90/month); the $70-a-month Start Unlimited plan is on the hook for that $10 5G fee.
And AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said during a company earnings call in April that 5G data plans will likely be tiered, similar to home broadband plans. If you buy Netgear’s Nighthawk 5G mobile hotspot, AT&T’s only 5G device for consumers, 15GB of data will cost $70 a month. Consumers who want to access 5G service on AT&T's newly launched low-band network need to only pay for an Unlimited Extra ($75/month) or Unlimited Elite ($85/month) plan.
T-Mobile and Sprint aren’t charging customers more for a separate 5G data plan, but both carriers require you to activate a 5G phone with an unlimited data plan. In T-Mobile’s case, that’s the Magenta plan, which costs $70 a month for one line. Sprint requires you to sign up for Unlimited Premium, its most expensive plan at $80 a month for a single line and $60 for an additional line.
4G: Faster than ever
The good news: Even if it takes a while for 5G networks to realize their full potential, wireless carriers have been simultaneously working on their 4G LTE networks. 4G is now more widespread, reliable and faster than ever. That’s crucial, because unlike past generations of network connectivity, 4G and 5G will coexist.
In 2014, when internet testing and data analytics firm Ookla started aggregating and analyzing mobile speeds from its Speedtest app, the mean download speed over 4G was 15.19 Mbps. According to the company’s latest report, which analyzed speed test data from 4.1 million unique devices in the first half of this year, download speeds now average 34.14 Mbps. Latency has dropped from 73 to 47 milliseconds in that time frame.
Milan Milanovic, Ookla’s resident network expert, recalled seeing peak download speeds top out at 50 Mbps in some tests back in 2010, when 4G was in its infancy. Now LTE devices can hit hundreds of megabits per second.
Every carrier has worked to boost LTE speeds and improve coverage in recent years to make the transition to 5G smoother. But only one carrier rolled out a new label to describe its effort: AT&T. And despite the controversy over its 5G E logo, which has led some subscribers to think they have 5G when they don’t, AT&T now offers the fastest LTE network in the U.S. According to Ookla, download speeds over AT&T’s network average 32.91 Mbps.
“AT&T is adding more lanes to the highway and adding more frequency bands,” Milanovic said. “If you have a [5G E] capable device, the network is ready to serve you four or five channels at the same time, which means faster speeds and completing tasks quicker.”
Other operators are doing the same thing, Milanovic noted, but they’re not sticking 5G labels on their advanced LTE networks. Verizon’s network, which topped our list of fastest wireless networks in 2018, isn’t quite as fast as AT&T and T-Mobile anymore, Ookla says, but it is more reliable in more areas than its rivals are. In other words, you’re more likely to be shunted to 3G on AT&T than you are on Verizon.
Just as 4G changed our lives with ride-hailing and video-streaming, 5G’s speeds will enable new ways of doing things.
“We’re in a tremendous period of change, and it’s going to happen very rapidly,” Ookla’s Blum said. “There’s been a lot of talk about 5G, and it’s been very speculative, deep in a lab somewhere being developed and tested. This is the first year we can actually say 5G is here.
“It’s not here for everyone, and it will take time to get to everyone,” Blum added. “But it is here. I think quarter to quarter for the next couple of years, it’s going to be mind-boggling amounts of growth.”