AT&T’s current 5G is slower than 4G in nearly every city tested by PCMag

AT&T logos seen on the window and door of a building.
Enlarge / An AT&T signal and emblem on Main Street throughout the Sundance Film Festival on January 23, 2020 in Park City, Utah.

AT&T smartphone customers who see their community indicators swap from “4G” to “5G” should not essentially count on that they are about to get sooner speeds. In PCMag’s annual mobile-network testing, launched at present, 5G telephones related to AT&T obtained slower speeds than 4G telephones in 21 out of twenty-two cities.

PCMag concluded that “AT&T 5G right now appears to be essentially worthless,” although AT&T’s common obtain pace of 103.1Mbps was nearly nearly as good as Verizon’s due to a robust 4G efficiency. Of course, AT&T 5G needs to be sooner than 4G in the long term—this is not one other case of AT&T misleadingly labeling its 4G community as a sort of 5G. Instead, the disappointing outcome on PCMag’s check has to do with how at present’s 5G telephones work and with how AT&T allocates spectrum.

The counterintuitive outcome would not reveal a lot concerning the precise variations between 4G and 5G expertise. Instead, it is reflective of how AT&T has used its spectrum to deploy 5G to date. As PCMag defined, “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.”

AT&T’s 4G community advantages from the aggregation of channels from completely different frequencies. “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 [the PCMag tests] final yr,” the article mentioned.

5G telephones cannot deal with that but, PCMag analyst Sascha Segan wrote:

But 5G telephones cannot add as many 4G channels to a 5G channel. So in the event that they’re in 5G mode, they’re giving up 4G channels to allow them to use that extraordinarily slim, usually 5MHz 5G channel, and the outcome is slower efficiency: fake G. For AT&T, utilizing a 5G telephone in testing was usually a step backward from our 4G-only telephone.

More particularly, “at locations with both 4G and 5G, our 5G phone was slower than our 4G phone in 21 out of 22 cities,” the article mentioned. While AT&T 5G telephones usually accessed simply 5MHz of spectrum, Segan wrote that his evaluation exhibits it “takes at least 50MHz of dedicated 5G spectrum to make a real difference.”

The distinction was stark in some cities. In Baltimore, the place AT&T offered common speeds of 117.1Mbps, “kicking into 5G mode… reduc[ed AT&T’s] average download speeds by a shocking 61 percent across the city,” PCMag wrote.

T-Mobile 5G wasn’t at all times sooner than 4G. In Austin, T-Mobile had probably the most 5G availability of any service, however “its 5G results were 17 percent slower than its 4G results at locations where both networks were available.”

PCMag has been testing cellular networks for 11 years and needed to regulate the way it reported outcomes this yr due to the curious 5G outcomes, Segan famous on Twitter:

PCMag mentioned it carried out assessments with Samsung Galaxy S10 and S20 telephones, 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.”

AT&T mentioned early 5G could be just like 4G

We requested AT&T if it plans any modifications, comparable to assigning extra than 5MHz to the 5G channel or switching telephones again to 4G when it is the quickest possibility, and can replace this text if we get a response.

In November 2019, AT&T mentioned its early 5G deployments on the 850MHz band would solely provide speeds which can be just like LTE-Advanced, a type of 4G that AT&T has misleadingly referred to as “5GE” or “5G Evolution.”

Despite the 5G slowdown in PCMag assessments, AT&T’s sturdy 4G efficiency helped it obtain a median obtain pace of 103.1Mbps, forward of T-Mobile’s 74Mbps and behind Verizon’s 105.1Mbps. AT&T additionally offered speeds above 10Mbps in 95 % of assessments, the best of the three carriers. PCMag testers have been in a position to get an AT&T 5G sign 38 % of the time, in comparison with T-Mobile’s 54 % and Verizon’s 4 %. (Verizon 5G makes use of solely millimeter-wave spectrum that has a a lot smaller attain than low- and mid-band spectrum.)

AT&T received the general pace title in 12 out of 26 cities, in comparison with 13 for Verizon and one for T-Mobile. AT&T provides 5G in 22 of the 26 cities tested.

PCMag did not check rural areas this yr as a result of it needed to regulate procedures for the pandemic. Instead of a journey schedule involving flights, rental vehicles, and accommodations, PCMag mentioned it employed “two dozen drivers to each test their own cities.”

Verizon 5G community “mind-blowing” however tiny

The lack of rural assessments means the averages discovered by PCMag are seemingly greater than the nationwide actuality. OpenSignal, which depends on user-initiated pace assessments, not too long ago discovered common obtain speeds of 32.6Mbps for AT&T, 28.2Mbps for T-Mobile, 27.4Mbps for Verizon, and 25.4Mbps for T-Mobile subsidiary Sprint. Those speeds embrace all networks, not simply 5G.

OpenSignal discovered common 5G speeds of 494.7Mbps for Verizon, 60.8Mbps for AT&T, and about 49Mbps for each T-Mobile and Sprint.

PCMag and OpenSignal assessments agree that Verizon’s 5G community is the toughest one to search out. Users of OpenSignal’s speed-test app have been in a position to get a Verizon 5G sign simply 0.4 % of the time, in comparison with 22.5 % for T-Mobile, 14.1 % for Sprint, and 10.3 % for AT&T.

“Verizon’s 5G is often mind-blowing, but very difficult to find,” PCMag wrote. Though it will possibly provide “speeds up to 2Gbps and latencies well under 10ms,” Verizon 5G was usually out there in solely two or three % of places in particular person cities.

Verizon 5G’s ultra-high pace and sparse availability should not shocking as a result of it makes use of the 28GHz spectrum band, which provides loads of capability however with out the flexibility to cowl lengthy distances or penetrate partitions and different obstacles. AT&T and T-Mobile 5G use the identical low-band spectrum bands they use for 4G, guaranteeing wider protection however with out enormous pace boosts.

Check out Ars’ Jim Salter’s current options for extra technical particulars on how 5G works at present and the way it will evolve.

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