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Is 5G as fast as they’re saying? We break down the speeds

Excitement about 5G networks, the fifth generation of mobile network technology, has been building steadily for years now. All major U.S. 5G carriers have deployed their initial “nationwide” networks, and they’re all poised to seriously expand the reach and capabilities of those networks. There are a lot of potential benefits to 5G over 4G, but one of the critical questions that immediately crops up in any discussion about it is how fast are 5G speeds?

We could say, “How long is a piece of string?” But that wouldn’t be a very useful answer. The truth is, the 5G speeds you get will depend on many factors, including where you are, what 5G network you’re connecting to, how many other people are connecting, and what 5G device you’re using.

Here’s everything you need to know.

Theoretical 5G speed

The theoretical maximum speeds of 5G are pretty groundbreaking — but we have a very long way to go before you’re likely to hit that kind of peak speed in the real world, regardless of your connected device. Depending on your 5G coverage, maximum download speeds often range from 1Gbps to 10Gbps, and latency, or the time it takes to send data, could go as low as 1 millisecond (ms).

That doesn’t mean very much in isolation, however, so here’s a table that pits the theoretical speeds of 5G technology against different generations of wireless technology:

Generation 2G 3G 3G HSPA+ 4G 4G LTE-A 5G
Max speed 0.3Mbps 7.2Mbps 42Mbps 150Mbps 300Mbps-1Gbps 1-10Gbps
Average speed 0.1Mbps 1.5Mbps 5Mbps 10Mbps 15Mbps-50Mbps 50Mbps and up

The averages here are approximate, and all the different technologies complicate the results because each generation has evolved and continued to grow, even after the next generation began to roll out. Then there’s the issue of carriers mislabeling their networks; many labeled HSPA+, which is a 3G technology, as 4G.

The latest flavors of 4G LTE-A can theoretically go as high as 1Gbps, which ranges into 5G territory. Still, those speeds are not available anywhere right now and are mostly dependent on the modem inside your device.

Real-world 5G download speeds

Of course, download speeds vary a lot depending on the type of 5G you’re connected to. For the uninitiated, 5G is made up of a few different frequency bands. The low-band spectrum, often referred to as Sub-6, is able to travel long distances and penetrate obstacles, but it delivers slower download speeds. The opposite is true for the high-band mmWave spectrum — you’ll get superfast download speeds, but radio waves can’t travel far or make their way through obstacles. For more about the 5G spectrum and the different types of 5G, check out our guide.

The currently available nationwide networks all depend on low-band 5G, and while there are pockets of mmWave coverage around the country, you won’t spend much time, if any, in those pockets. That will likely change as time goes on and carriers improve the quality of the 5G networks.

According to a recent report from Opensignal, there’s a massive gulf between carriers at the moment. At the lowest end is AT&T with average 5G download speeds of 49.1Mbps — which isn’t much faster than your typical 4G network. Verizon’s average is a little quicker, at 56.2Mbps. T-Mobile is the reigning king though, with an impressive average download speed of 150Mbps. That’s a massive increase, and it goes hand in hand with T-Mobile’s impressively large availability and reach.

Download speeds don’t just vary depending on your type of 5G connectivity; they’ll also vary depending on how many people are connected to the network. The more people connected to a cell tower at once, the less bandwidth that can be dedicated to you specifically. That’s why mmWave could prove important in places like stadiums, where potentially thousands of people could be connected to a network at once.

Latency and 5G speed

Perhaps more important than actual download speed, at least initially, is latency.

“The arrival of 5G will undoubtedly bring higher speeds for end users — but those speeds will vary depending on how operators design their networks and how many users are on the network,” Els Baert, director of marketing and communications at NetComm, told Digital Trends in an interview. “Although 5G will be able to deliver higher speeds, the main difference end users will notice will be the extra-low latency on 5G compared to 3G or 4G — this will open up new applications in the Internet of Things space.”

Perhaps more important than actual download speed, at least initially, is latency.

According to a white paper from the Next Generation Mobile Networks Alliance, which helped establish standards, 5G networks should offer 10ms latency in general and 1ms for special cases that require lower latency. The report also suggests that “data rates up to 1Gbps should be supported in some specific environments, like indoor offices, while at least 50Mbps shall be available everywhere.”

How fast is 5G in 2022?

Although 5G service is now widely available with a 5G phone, it’s not the superfast replacement to 4G that many were hoping for — yet. As each carrier continues to improve its wireless networks and work on 5G deployment, 5G users should expect reduced latency and faster speeds.

Over the next few years, you’ll see better access to mid- and high-band frequencies, in addition to the basic expansion of the area that 5G networks cover. You’ll also see a notable uptick in 5G-capable devices. It used to be we would only see 5G on flagship devices — but with 5G support now landing on midrange and cheaper smartphones, it’s fair to say 5G has truly arrived in our pockets. But even though this is true, 5G rollout will still take a little more time for both carriers and smartphone manufacturers.

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