5G speed only marginally better than 4G across most networks, report says

AT&T, T-Mobile 5G connections see doubled speed compared to 4G, but nothing like Verizon's milli-meter wave.
A mobile phone running on the T-Mobile wireless network. (Photo: The Desk)

When Apple debuted its latest line of iPhone devices last week, the news made waves for the tech company’s decision to embrace 5G, the newest wireless standard that promises faster speeds and lower latency compared to the previous 4G LTE standard.

Turns out, the difference might be incremental at best.

In a new report released this week, two of the three biggest carriers — AT&T and T-Mobile — showed only marginal improvements in average wireless data speed on their 5G networks compared to 4G LTE.

The data was compiled by Ookla, a technology firm that operates a service called SpeedTest.net where ordinary users can measure their wireless data connections on the fly.

Customer reports showed Verizon had the top 5G data speed as tested by Ookla users, with an average download speed of 793 megabits per second (Mb/s). The speed is likely attributable to Verizon’s use of milli-meter wave technology, which offers significantly faster 5G speed compared to two other standards — low-band and mid-band wave technology — that the company’s rivals T-Mobile and AT&T are leaning harder on.

In recent months, executives at T-Mobile have criticized Verizon’s use of milli-meter wave technology, saying low-band and mid-band is better because those radio waves travel farther while offering significant boosts in data transfer speeds.

But those boosts might be exaggerated if Ookla’s data is anything to go by: According to the data, T-Mobile’s 5G connections clocked in at an average of 60 Mb/s while AT&T’s were slightly higher at an average of 65 Mb/s. Previous-generation 4G LTE speeds were 33 Mb/s for T-Mobile and 41 Mb/s for AT&T respectively.

The data collected represented a three-month period ending in the third quarter of 2020, according to Ookla. The company uses a filter it calls “competitive geography,” which it says provides “a balanced comparison of U.S. mobile operators by eliminating geographic outliers.” The filter works by incorporating data where SpeedTest users represent a diverse mixture of wireless network customers while eliminating data from cities and towns where one wireless company dominates the service area.

Ookla also reports data based on a “consistency score,” which it says is a network’s ability to offer 5 Mb/s download speeds and 1 Mb/s upload speeds across its network based on aggregated user reports. Of the three national wireless providers (Sprint was included in the report as a separate line, despite it being owned by T-Mobile), AT&T was shown to have the best consistency score with 81.4 percent, followed by T-Mobile at 80.8 percent and Verizon Wireless at 76.9 percent.

All three operators are continuing to build out their 5G wireless networks, and 5G speeds could improve for AT&T and T-Mobile as time goes on.

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