5G in the US: Why the network of the future has not yet delivered on the revolution that we were promised.

  • Adriano Giaquinta Avatar
  • Thomas Martin Avatar
By Adriano Giaquinta, M. Sc., Telecoms Strategist
and Dr. Thomas Martin, Chief Technology Officer
Updated on August 25, 2022

A fresh perspective on 5G in the US sheds light on how regulatory decisions, geo-political tensions, and suboptimal network configurations, contributed to a disappointing year, and why 2021 might be a turning point.

Real world results of 5G in the US have been disappointing so far

2020 was supposed to be the year in which 5G revolutionized the telecommunications industry, with breakneck speeds and super-low latencies. Everyone – from chip manufacturers to cellular carriers and smartphone brands – promised how amazing 5G would be. Many called it “wireless fiber”, promising super broadband Internet connections everywhere. Others stressed the fact that 5G was supposed to top out at 10 gigabits per second (Gbps) - that is a hundred times faster than 4G. And while this has happened to some extent, the real-world results of 5G so far have been, at best, underwhelming, and, at worst, no better than former generations of mobile communications.

In 2020, 5G speeds in the US did not come anywhere close to the 10 Gbps commonly associated with the latest cellular technology. The data collected from 1 October 2020 to 31 December 2020 by our speed test , which measures the quality of Internet connections on millions of devices yearly, shows that 5G networks in the US did not deliver the super cellular connections that we were promised. 5G download speeds across the country were only 2.7 times faster than 4G speeds. These real-world results pale in comparison with the promise of a hundred times faster connections. In some cases, 5G was even slower than 4G: in 1 out of 8 US cities where 5G was available last year, 4G-connected users could browse the Internet faster than 5G-connected ones, leaving many 5G-phone owners puzzled. A more in-depth analysis of the same data reveals that 5G users experienced substantially faster connections in only 69% of the cities including big cities like Los Angeles where the new technology was deployed last year. In the remaining 31% of the cities, the new cellular technology was either slower or only moderately faster than 4G (and, anyway, not better enough for many consumers to justify an early purchase of a 5G-enabled phone).

In Q4 2020, Sprint proved to have the fastest 5G network in the US, but no carrier lived up to the expectations.

In the last quarter of 2020, Sprint (which started merging its operations with T-Mobile in April last year) offered the fastest 5G across the country (with median download speeds of 59Mbps, or 24% higher than the nationwide median figures), as the operator was the only one to have rolled out a 5G network on the 2.5GHz mid-frequency band, that is a sweet spot when it comes to offering great speeds and good coverage.

AT&T, with median 5G speeds of 53Mbps, did a good job at combining low-frequency bands – to provide its rural subscribers with a solid coverage layer (the carrier currently claims that its 5G reaches more than 14,000 cities and towns) – and millimeter waves (mmWave) – to offer a true 5G experience in pockets of dense areas within certain cities.

T-Mobile delivered median 5G speeds of 47Mbps, that is 13% lower than AT&T, as the carrier relied heavily on low-frequency signals, which travel far and wide but do not carry vast amounts of data.

Verizon – somewhat surprisingly – offered median 5G download speeds of only 44Mbps despite having the highest share of the 28GH high-frequency band (mmWave), that in theory offers mind-boggling super-fast speeds.

Overall, in the last quarter of 2020, mobile users in the US experienced marginal improvements in 5G, witnessing download speeds that were only 2.7 times faster than 4G, which compares with other technologically advanced countries’ 5 to 6 times faster connections, typically.

There are at least 3 reasons why, to date, 5G has not delivered on its promises.

  • Regulatory decisions. In every country around the world that has launched 5G – except the US – the C-band frequencies (that is airwaves between 3.4GHz and 4.2GHz) are at the very heart of the new technology, as they offer a great combination of good coverage and high-speed connections. In the US, most of the spectrum available in the C-band (280MHz) was not auctioned until January this year, forcing the major carriers to rely heavily on lower frequencies, which work over long distances but deliver slow speeds, or higher frequencies (mmWave), which carry far larger amount of data but on short-range signals.
  • Geo-political tensions. When the US deemed [Chinese-owned] Huawei a national security risk, it caused many 5G deployments to be put on hold. Operators then had to take big steps backward and choose other suppliers for their network equipment, in a move that delayed the commercial launch of 5G in the country.
  • Sub-optimal network configurations. The majority of the initial 5G deployments in the US were Non-Stand-Alone (NSA), meaning that the new networks were aided by existing 4G infrastructures. On NSA deployments, LTE-controlled communications shift to 5G only when a device wants to exchange, resulting in a 4G-like user experience.

If 5G does not improve fast, other technologies like Wi-Fi 6 and Internet-beaming satellite might become a real threat.

In 2020, the average 5G download speeds in the US were in some cases hovering below the country’s typical Wi-Fi speeds. Today, there are new WiFi standards, such as Wi-Fi 6, that offer even faster data rate (up to 9.6 Gbps theoretically, or 2x that of the previous generation of Wi-Fi) and reduced latency. Internet-beaming satellite startups like Elon Musk’s Starlink or Jeff Bezos’ Project Kuiper are also claiming speeds of over 100Mbps, making this another - somewhat surprising – option to access broadband connections on the go. If US operators do not improve their 5G networks quickly, they will find themselves facing a crowded competitive arena where users will be given more viable options to choose from.

2021 might be a turning point for 5G in the US, as operators will try to capitalize on their newly acquired C-band spectrum.

In January, the US Federal Commission Communications (FCC) completed a spectrum auction that will provide an injection of highly desired C-band spectrum (that is a mid-frequency) for 5G deployment in the country. The major US carriers and other service providers bid a staggering USD 80.9 billion for the licensing rights to use this spectrum, shattering the country’s previous auction record for 4G LTE back in 2015. More important than the specific bids, the total amounts are so high that they speak volumes to the importance of the C-band to improve 5G networks in the US.

Based on the results of the auction, it is now obvious to everyone that the future of 5G in the US (as it is in other technologically advanced countries) is in mid-band. T-Mobile has already expanded the reach of its mid-band 5G service using 2.5 GHz spectrum acquired through the Sprint merger, claiming to have now both the largest and the fastest 5G network in the country. Verizon and AT&T will look to use the newly acquired spectrum to further increase their 5G capacity and expand their coverage at the same time, in a bid to catch up and compete with T-Mobile.

The near-term challenge for Verizon and AT&T is that this newly licensed spectrum will not be released instantly but in waves over the next few years. Another major area of concern is that as large sums of money were spent on the spectrum itself, investments in cell towers, antennas and other network elements that will use the new frequencies might get delayed. Some industry analysts have correctly pointed out that US operators might face the same crushing debt that ruined many European operators after they collectively spent USD 129 billion on 3G spectrum licenses in the early 2000s.

The good news, however, is that these new frequencies should finally bring the dramatic shift in 5G performance for which consumers and businesses in the US have been waiting impatiently.

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