5G has been long awaited. Now that it’s finally beginning to roll out, it seems the speed isn’t what many are hoping for. In particular, the 5G service AT&T is offering at this point is slower than its 4G in 21 out of 22 cities.
Testing 5G Against 4G
PCMag does an annual test of the top mobile networks. It reported that “AT&T 5G right now appears to be essentially worthless,” so if you’re an AT&T customer, you’re probably very disappointed right now.
Not that AT&T was particularly slow, however. The average download speed for AT&T was 103.Mbps, which places it just below that of Verizon but much better than T-Mobile.
This still doesn’t show why 5G is often slower than 4G, though. It’s a result of the way AT&T has used its spectrum to put 5G to use so far.
“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,” explained PCMag. With as much time as customers have been waiting for 5G, you would think it was more than just a small section of the old cellular band.
AT&T’s 4G service gets its speed through the aggregation of channels from different frequencies. As PCMag said, “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 [PCMag’s annual test] last year.”
Analyst Sascha Segan noted 5G phones just can’t handle that aggregation yet. The models tested were the Samsung Galaxy S10 and the Samsung Galaxy S20. These were chosen “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.”
The 5G phones, however, can’t add as many 4G channels to a 5G channel. If they’re running 5G, they’re not utilizing the 4G channels so that they can run the reduced 5G channel instead. This leads to the slower performance.
Further, PCMag said, “At locations with both 4gG and 5G, our 5G phone was slower than our 4G phone in 21 of 22 cities.” AT&T 5G phones were often accessing only 5MHz of spectrum.
In Baltimore, AT&T boasts speeds of 117.1Mbps. But once 5G is used, it reduces the average download speed by 61 percent throughout the city.
While overall T-Mobile 5G was faster than 4G, in Austin, it had the most 5G availability of the carriers. “It’s 5G results were 17 percent slower than its 4G results at locations where both networks were available.”
AT&T admitted last November that its 5G on the 850MHz band would only offer speeds that are similar to LTE-Advanced. This is just a form of 4G, but AT&T has fooled customers by referring to it as “5GE” or “5G Evolution.”
However, that same 4G service that helped AT&T win top speeds last year is still helping. It allowed an average download speed of 103.1Mbps. T-Mobile’s was a paltry 74Mbps, and Verizon’s topped AT&T slightly with 105.1Mbps. The testers were only able to get an AT&T 5G signal 38 percent of the time, while T-Mobile’s was available 54 percent of the time. Verizon’s, though, was only available a measly four percent of the time.
The 5G Winner
The AT&T 5G and the Verizon 4G continued to duke it out. AT&T won the overall speed title in 12 of 26 cities, while Verizon won 13 cities. T-Mobile only won one city.
Hampering the testing, however, was the coronavirus. PCMag had to adjust its procedures because of the pandemic. Instead of a schedule that involved travel on flights and in rental cars, the magazine hired two dozen drivers to test their own cities.
Without rural testing, it meant the averages are likely higher than what is being reported. This more limited testing found that Verizon’s network is the hardest to find, though the 5G speed “is often mind-blowing.”
This means if you’ve been waiting for 5G to come to your area and to have a phone that runs 5G, it’s really all for naught at this point. The service is still not up to where it needs to be, and it can still be hard to find. And if you have the AT&T 5G service, you’re no better off than when you ran 4G on your phone.
If you are still wanting 5G right now, these are the top 5G phones you can buy today.