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Is 5G a gamechanger for end-user experience? RootMetrics tests 5G in 5 cities

What’s 5G like? It depends a lot on a carrier’s spectrum strategy.

As U.S. carriers expand their 5G networks’ reach, is 5G living up to the promise that it will be a game-changer for end users’ mobile experience?

Well … kind of. In some cases, in some places, and on some networks more than others, according to new testing by RootMetrics. 5G still has a long way to go to live up to its much-hyped potential, but there are intriguing glimpses of just how much the technology can improve the network experience for end-users who have 5G devices and coverage.

“While 5G has the potential to fundamentally alter the connected experience for both enterprises and consumers alike, the transformative effects of 5G won’t happen overnight,” the benchmarking company says in a new report which analyzes 5G performance across the four national carriers’ 5G networks in five U.S. cities: Chicago, Dallas, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.

“In a word, 5G can be complicated,” the report concludes. “There is no one-size-fits-all 5G solution and the end-user 5G experience can vary a great deal depending on what type of spectrum the carriers use for deployments.” Which spectrum a carrier uses for its 5G deployment affects both geographical coverage as well as speed performance.

RootMetrics noted that the four carriers have are pursuing different strategies in their 5G deployments. As far as spectrum used, the breakdown is:

Among the conclusions that RootMetrics drew:

5G strategies are already shifting. “5G deployment strategies in the US have already shown signs of change,” RootMetrics said. AT&T, for example, initially launched very limited 5G millimeter-wave deployments for enterprise last summer, but is now bolstering its low-band, consumer-oriented coverage — although even that has changed recently, with AT&T also beginning to offer consumers mmWave access (which it is calling 5G+ and which was not included in RootMetrics’ current report, which covers testing that took place in late 2019).

Latency hasn’t been significantly impacted as of yet. RootMetrics pointed out that faster speeds aren’t exactly the same as lower latency. Latency testing results, the company added, “did not show a meaningful pattern of improvement on 5G compared to 4G LTE. That said, we expect to see latency improvements over time as the carriers continue to enhance their networks by utilizing more edge computing.”

Download speeds are being prioritized. This is the case in other countries as well, RootMetrics said: carriers are using 5G to boost download speeds, rather than upload speeds.

Coverage is inconsistent, especially for mmWave networks. RootMetrics found that across the five cities tested, the percentage of time in which 5G service was available ranged from more than 57% of the time on T-Mobile US’ network in D.C., to around 3% of the time if you were a Verizon customer in Chicago. T-Mobile US was found to offer more 5G coverage than the other carriers, RootMetrics said, but at a performance level that was actually slower than its 4G LTE network speeds, with a 5G median download speed that never exceeded 34 Mbps. “In short, our results suggest that, currently, T-Mobile’s low-band 5G isn’t performing much differently from its 4G LTE network,” RootMetrics said, while adding that it expects speeds to improve as the technology continues to mature.

mmWave and mid-band spectrum strategies distinguish themselves by speed. Meanwhile, Verizon’s mmWave turned in blazing speed, with RootMetrics clocking its fastest 5G maximum download speed at 845.7 Mbps in Washington, D.C. and recording one of the top-three fastest 5G speeds that RootMetrics has so far recorded in the U.S.: 780.1 Mbps in Chicago.

Sprint’s mid-band 5G offers a marked improvement over its LTE performance, with a max download speed on 5G of nearly 250 Mbps in Chicago. Sprint’s 5G performance in each of the cities tested was generally better than T-Mo’s, RootMetrics found, and it was on-par with AT&T’s low-band 5G network.

Verizon’s mmWave network, however, shows just how much 5G “could profoundly change the end-user experience in some cities,” RootMetrics said. It said that 5G median download speeds were “incredibly fast” across the carrier’s network in the five cities, with “remarkable” download speeds in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. And its 4G network still delivers as well, with LTE speeds that were faster than T-Mobile US’ 5G in each of the cities, and a median download LTE speed in Los Angeles that was “nearly identical” to what RootMetrics saw on AT&T’s 5G network in LA.

Consistency of experience is important to overall end-user experience. RootMetrics said that the “consistency of each carrier’s speeds has the most impact on the end-user experience and reflects the true consumer experience regardless of network technology.” In Chicago, Sprint and Verizon showed impressive speed consistency results; AT&T did particularly well with this in Dallas; and those three carriers were generally assessed by RootMetrics as providing a more consistent experience across network technologies than T-Mobile US.

“It’s important to remember that new technologies always take time to expand and mature, and we should see both faster 5G speeds and greater 5G availability over time for all four carriers,” the report said.

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