It’s time again for PCMag’s annual Fastest Mobile Network shootout, and it’s an important one. This is the first year in which we have just three major carriers, and all of them are pushing 5G hard. Verizon took the crown in 2020, barely edging out AT&T. However, that’s thanks almost entirely to the strength of its 4G LTE network. This year’s test reveals that 5G isn’t all it’s cracked up to be—it’s actually slower than 4G in a lot of places.
You might be thinking, “how can this be true?” After all, carriers have been crowing about their blazing fast 5G speeds all year. The report shows that it’s at least a lie of omission. While 5G can be very fast in the right circumstances, you’ll almost never be in a place where that’s true in 2020.
Verizon showed the highest maximum download speed at about 2Gbps, but PCMag found just 4 percent of its network has 5G. That’s a consequence of Verizon’s reliance on millimeter wave 5G, which doesn’t travel very far but can provide high speeds if you’re close to the cell site (like the one above). AT&T and T-Mobile both have low-band 5G networks that run on LTE-like frequencies in addition to some millimeter wave. However, these low-band networks have the opposite problem. They’re more accessible but can be even slower than LTE.
AT&T has 5G covering about 38 percent of the tested areas, and it can reach speeds in excess of 400Mbps. It usually doesn’t, though. With just a sliver of spectrum at 850MHz reserved for 5G, speeds were slower than 4G in 21 out of 22 tested locations. LTE band aggregation has made AT&T’s balkanized 4G network pretty fast, but 5G can’t benefit from that technology in the same way right now.
T-Mobile’s 5G is a middle ground right now. It’s using a chunk of 600MHz for low-band right now, and speeds were inconsistent. In some markets, it too was slower than Tmo’s 4G. However, in some places where it has a larger spectrum license, it was substantially faster. T-Mobile also has the advantage of Sprint’s 2.5GHz mid-band 5G spectrum but has only just started deploying it. Places like Washington DC and Philadelphia that have the new frequency were much faster on 5G than 4G.
This report leads us to one inescapable conclusion: 5G isn’t ready. Still, Qualcomm packed 5G technology into its latest chips and gave OEMs strong incentives to use it. Carriers were happy to go along because more Geez is good marketing. What did we get out of all this? More expensive phones that apparently aren’t as fast. Maybe 5G will be worth using next year, but it’s a bad experience in 2020.
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