Real-World 5G Speeds Are Slower Than Expected

In theory, the potential speeds of 5G and the factors that can influence those speeds are good things to know (these were discussed in detail in my previous column entitledHow Fast Will 5G Really Be?). But, let’s be honest. A lot of people just want to know what the actual speed numbers are. So, let’s cut to the chase.

First, a bit of context. The current average download speed for 4G phones across the US is about 35 Mbps (megabits per second). As with all averages, however, there are a big range of speeds that make up that figure. For example, using a modern 4G smartphone, like the Samsung Galaxy Fold, iPhone 10S Max, or Google Pixel 4, inside my home at the north end of Silicon Valley on AT&T’s network, I regularly see average download speeds of 120-135 Mbps, or 4x faster than the national average. Peak speeds—which aren’t sustainable over time—can go even higher.

Interestingly, I’ve found that it’s sometimes even faster than the Netgear Orbi WiFi mesh system plugged into an Xfinity broadband cable modem that I have set-up. I’ve seen throughput across this connection at about 120 Mbps (though, to be fair, it also goes up to 180 Mbps in certain rooms). But the point is, even right now, it’s possible to get faster speeds using 4G phones on a 4G network than on what is widely considered to be a good broadband and WiFi setup. (By the way, all these tests were done using the simple, but very useful, SpeedTest utility, which you can either download onto your phone or run by simply directing your browser to www.speedtest.net.)

Part of the reason for these results is that all of my smartphones, as well as the AT&T San Francisco Bay Area network to which they connect, support LTE Advanced Pro, the most advanced version of the 4G standard. Ironically and confusingly, though, LTE Advanced Pro is what AT&T calls 5G Evolution, or 5Ge. To be clear, it’s not a real 5G signal, despite the fact that they have marketed it as such. LTE Advanced Pro devices and networks are a great reflection of how fast 4G can be, as well as being a real-world example of how speed changes within a “G” generation.

In fact, one of the most interesting and useful side benefits of the transition to 5G is that, in the process of getting ready for it, all the major carriers have been making significant upgrades to the 4G portions of their network. Of course, they’re not just doing this because they feel like it. Remember that for the first years of 5G, particularly for what’s called Non-Standalone or NSA 5G, the 4G networks play a critical role. (See The 4G-5G Connectioncolumn for more on the interdependencies between the two types of networks.) As a result, improving the 4G network capabilities is a very important step towards full 5G network deployments—and a lot of 4G phone-users get to benefit from these developments in the process.

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