IoT and the Edge

Kicking Low-Band 5G Tires – Three Takeaways about 5G Performance

See what IDC's Jason Leigh discovered when he tested out several recent low-band 5G deployments – and what it means for consumers.
Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

Following a variety of small scale 5G rollouts in 2019, the rubber is hitting the road in terms of making the next-gen cellular technology available to the masses with the recent low-band spectrum 5G launches from AT&T and T-Mobile. For the past month, I have been putting those recent deployments through their paces and came away with a few impressions on low-band 5G’s impact on today’s user experience.

My testing was by no means scientific. Instead I was focusing on why, at this stage, 5G matters to the consumer subscriber. I put the 5G networks through the traditional speed tests as well as a few more practical, every day uses such as file downloads, streaming quality and some limited gaming to gauge the user experience under LTE and 5G scenarios. My testing largely occurred in the I-95 corridor between Boston and the Rhode Island-Connecticut border. What follows is my assessment of low-band 5G’s coverage, speed & performance, and the always subjective user experience. 

Coverage

I found that the coverage maps from both operators provide a good gauge of where to expect 5G service and didn’t overstate things. In a few instances, I was even able to find a 5G signal outside the promised footprints. However, even within the heart of carrier-defined coverage, the 5G signal would occasionally disappear and reappear, as gauged by the on-phone 5G icon. 

Given the early nature of these deployments, coverage limitations are to be expected. Over time, 5G coverage will only get more pervasive and signal strength more consistent as the infrastructure buildout continues, and as network functions are optimized. All in all, after observing 5G launches from a distance for most of 2019, it was nice to be able to find a signal in my relative backyard.

Speed Tests

The past two years has seen nearly every mention of 5G tip its hat to 1Gbps speeds. But now that low-band 5G is being commercially released, there is an attempt to put the genie back in the bottle and reframe expectations. The realistic speeds that 5G is capable of at each spectrum tier vary significantly, a nuance that is lost on your average consumer. At present, only those in the industry, and a few well-informed consumers, expect to see low-band 5G to be somewhat faster than LTE.

Regardless of the Sub-6Ghz 5G expectations, the speed in my testing varied greatly. Using the SpeedTest app by Ookla, I found that most 5G test speeds came in north of 60Mbps. That said, there were wide variations. Several tests fell in the impressively fast 150-200 Mbps range, and yet there were some 5G test results in the low teens and even single digits. Conversely, while most LTE tests fell in the 30-60 Mbps range, there were several 100 Mbps+ results, including one 200Mbps test on LTE. 

Downloads & Streaming

The practical tests are where things begin to get murky. I used the HD version of Star Wars:  The Last Jedi, including all the extras, as my test file. It was difficult to see a meaningful impact in downloading or streaming the file. Most downloads took between 5 and 12 minutes to complete, including a yawn-inducing 16-minute wait in one 5G scenario. The best download took a little over 4 minutes to download the 1.8GB file – a far cry from the instantaneous experience seen in the mmWave demos. 

I had a similarly variable experience downloading entire seasons of different TV series. My gaming performance, via the game streaming service Hatch, was largely a subjective experience, but in general, I found no appreciable difference between LTE and 5G. While most games ran smoothly (not as a result of my gaming prowess), there were periodic stutters, stalls and crashes when utilizing both LTE and 5G.

Key Takeaways

Seeing the performance of early iterations of low-band 5G first hand, I came away with a few high level impressions.

Consistency

Low-band 5G does have an appreciable, albeit inconsistent, speed advantage over LTE. But LTE is no slouch and will continue to do yeoman’s duty for years to come. While consumer 5G offerings today won’t deliver the 1Gbps speeds we’ve come to associate with 5G over the past couple years, no one should be turning their nose up at 60+Mbps either.

The bigger issue might be one of consistency. One of the key benefits proposed for 5G is the ability of operators to provide guaranteed quality of service (QoS) for their connectivity. Given the wide variation in my limited tests, providing a guaranteed service quality of any kind remains an ambition rather than a reality.

Do I have 5G or Not?

This was an interesting wrinkle I noticed during testing: in some instances, different testing apps indicated the device was using an LTE signal, despite the 5G icon on the phone. It is a situation that is ripe for consumer dissatisfaction, if the 5G symbol on the phone doesn’t result in the promised performance improvements. As described to me by one developer, there is likely some work to be done in opening up the OS to better allow apps to identify the type of cellular connection the smartphone is using. This will be important for use cases predicated on functionality that can only be achieved with a 5G signal.

Regardless of the technological nuances, with a 5G logo featured prominently on my device, several activities took the same or longer than I’ve come to expect on LTE. Just the performance alone would lead the typical consumer to wonder whether on-phone icon a true indicator of 5G access or not. 

Does 5G Matter?

This is perhaps the most critical question for consumers and answer to which, if based solely on the tests of current state-low band 5G, is probably a resounding “Eh.” Those consumers investing in 5G devices and upgrading to a 5G service plan with the expectation of a new transformative experience with be disappointed with the current state of 5G. Do the tests show a meaningful increase in speed?  Yes. 

But mobile users aren’t purchasing a 5G device so they can run speed tests all day long. They will invest in the devices and service plans that make an impact on their day-to-day lives. With a 5G signal now available, and 5G-enabled devices are on the market, the investment and R&D effort needs to shift, quickly, to software, and application development that can show why 5G is meaningful to the typical consumer. 

In the end, it is easy to look at the 5G status quo and be unimpressed by what the technology has to offer. But it is important to remember that 5G is still very much in its infancy. Just like when a baby transitions to a toddler, there is a lot of stumbling before shuffling, walking before running. 

And yet this feeling of disappointment is nothing new. The launch of the previous cellular generation brought out critics wondering what consumers were ever going to do with the increase in speed offered by 4G, since the capabilities of the 4G networks launched a decade ago far exceeded the capabilities of the devices at the time. Given the ubiquity of smartphones today, that question has been decidedly answered. 

The 5G experience a year or two from now will hardly resemble what we see on the market today. But the coverage, network performance, device landscape and software ecosystems all need time to mature and evolve in order to incorporate 5G in transformative ways. Solving the “performance = promise” equation for 5G will take something that cannot be delivered at 1Gbps speeds: time and patience.

Learn more about IDC’s forecasts for 5G connections, adoption, and innovation in our first worldwide IDC forecast:

Jason Leigh

Research Manager, Mobility