Enlarge / An AT&T signal and brand on Essential Road through the Sundance Movie Pageant on January 23, 2020 in Park Metropolis, 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 quicker speeds. In PCMag’s annual mobile-network testing, launched right this moment, 5G telephones related to AT&T acquired slower speeds than 4G telephones in 21 out of 22 cities.

PCMag concluded that “AT&T 5G proper now seems to be primarily nugatory,” although AT&T’s common obtain velocity of 103.1Mbps was practically nearly as good as Verizon’s due to a powerful 4G efficiency. In fact, AT&T 5G needs to be quicker than 4G in the long term—this is not one other case of AT&T misleadingly labeling its 4G community as a kind of 5G. As an alternative, the disappointing end result on PCMag’s check has to do with how right this moment’s 5G telephones work and with how AT&T allocates spectrum.

The counterintuitive end result does not reveal a lot in regards to the precise variations between 4G and 5G know-how. As an alternative, it is reflective of how AT&T has used its spectrum to deploy 5G up to now. As PCMag defined, “AT&T’s 5G slices off a slim little bit of the previous 850MHz mobile band and assigns it to 5G, to provide telephones a sound 5G icon with out growing efficiency. And due to the best way present 5G telephones work, it usually reduces efficiency.”

AT&T’s 4G community advantages from the aggregation of channels from totally different frequencies. “The newest telephones are in a position to assemble as much as seven of them—that is known as seven-carrier aggregation, and it is why AT&T received [the PCMag tests] final 12 months,” the article mentioned.

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

However 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 result’s slower efficiency: fake G. For AT&T, utilizing a 5G telephone in testing was usually a step backward from our 4G-only telephone.

Extra particularly, “at areas with each 4G and 5G, our 5G telephone was slower than our 4G telephone in 21 out of 22 cities,” the article mentioned. Whereas AT&T 5G telephones usually accessed simply 5MHz of spectrum, Segan wrote that his evaluation reveals it “takes at the least 50MHz of devoted 5G spectrum to make an actual distinction.”

The distinction was stark in some cities. In Baltimore, the place AT&T supplied common speeds of 117.1Mbps, “kicking into 5G mode… reduc[ed AT&T’s] common obtain speeds by a surprising 61 % throughout town,” PCMag wrote.

T-Cellular 5G wasn’t all the time quicker than 4G. In Austin, T-Cellular had probably the most 5G availability of any service, however “its 5G outcomes have been 17 % slower than its 4G outcomes at areas the place each networks have been out there.”

PCMag has been testing cell networks for 11 years and needed to alter the way it reported outcomes this 12 months due to the curious 5G outcomes, Segan famous on Twitter:

PCMag mentioned it carried out exams with Samsung Galaxy S10 and S20 telephones, chosen “as a result of they provide the perfect 4G and 5G efficiency out there, with the S20 supporting all of the various kinds of 5G US carriers have to supply.”

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

We requested AT&T if it plans any adjustments, resembling assigning greater 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 supply speeds which can be much like LTE-Superior, a type of 4G that AT&T has misleadingly known as “5GE” or “5G Evolution.”

Regardless of the 5G slowdown in PCMag exams, AT&T’s robust 4G efficiency helped it obtain a median obtain velocity of 103.1Mbps, forward of T-Cellular’s 74Mbps and behind Verizon’s 105.1Mbps. AT&T additionally supplied speeds above 10Mbps in 95 % of exams, 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-Cellular’s 54 % and Verizon’s four %. (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 velocity title in 12 out of 26 cities, in comparison with 13 for Verizon and one for T-Cellular. AT&T affords 5G in 22 of the 26 cities examined.

PCMag did not check rural areas this 12 months as a result of it needed to alter procedures for the pandemic. As an alternative of a journey schedule involving flights, rental vehicles, and accommodations, PCMag mentioned it employed “two dozen drivers to every check their very own cities.”

Verizon 5G community “mind-blowing” however tiny

The shortage of rural exams means the averages discovered by PCMag are probably increased than the nationwide actuality. OpenSignal, which depends on user-initiated velocity exams, not too long ago discovered common obtain speeds of 32.6Mbps for AT&T, 28.2Mbps for T-Cellular, 27.4Mbps for Verizon, and 25.4Mbps for T-Cellular subsidiary Dash. These speeds embody 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-Cellular and Dash.

PCMag and OpenSignal exams agree that Verizon’s 5G community is the toughest one to search out. Customers of OpenSignal’s speed-test app have been in a position to get a Verizon 5G sign simply 0.four % of the time, in comparison with 22.5 % for T-Cellular, 14.1 % for Dash, and 10.three % for AT&T.

“Verizon’s 5G is usually mind-blowing, however very troublesome to search out,” PCMag wrote. Although it may possibly supply “speeds as much as 2Gbps and latencies nicely below 10ms,” Verizon 5G was usually out there in solely two or three % of areas in particular person cities.

Verizon 5G’s ultra-high velocity and sparse availability aren’t stunning as a result of it makes use of the 28GHz spectrum band, which affords loads of capability however with out the power to cowl lengthy distances or penetrate partitions and different obstacles. AT&T and T-Cellular 5G use the identical low-band spectrum bands they use for 4G, guaranteeing wider protection however with out big velocity boosts.

Try Ars’ Jim Salter’s latest options for extra technical particulars on how 5G works right this moment and the way it will evolve.

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