In a comparison of users with 4G versus 5G-capable devices on AT&T’s network, new Tutela analysis found – as it did with T-Mobile and Verizon – 5G isn’t making much of difference in terms of everyday experience at this point.
AT&T users accessing the 5G network did get a boost for median download compared to 4G, but latency performed worse.
So far AT&T has rolled out 5G coverage using lower band spectrum such as 850 MHz, along with dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) technology that allocates resources between 4G and 5G users depending on demand. It also has limited deployments of high-band millimeter wave (dubbed “5G+”), which offers speed and capacity, but connecting to a signal can be a challenge.
Like Verizon, AT&T plans to roll out key mid-band spectrum later this year after winning a significant amount of C-band in the 3.7-3.98 GHz range (80 MHz on average as the second-biggest spender at auction 107). AT&T’s 40-megahertz of the first available batch is expected to be cleared before the end of 2021.
Tutela collected measurements from users with new 4G and 5G-capable handsets in 10 mature 5G markets, where each operator has a relatively high availability of 5G. To collect data Tutela partners with app publishers to embed its SDK, collecting anonymized network quality information from smartphone users. It also conducts active tests for measures including throughput, network reliability, and applications like video-streaming.
The main focus of the June analysis was to determine how different an experience AT&T consumers would get with an upgraded 5G device. The short answer: not much.
For typical applications like HD video streaming, and online multiplayer games Tutela didn’t report a noticeable change for its "Excellent Consistent Quality" metric between users with 5G-capable devices and those with new but non-5G devices.
Tutela wrote that “for the vast majority of applications that people use a cellular connection for, 5G does not move the needle on user experience.”
Both types of devices did score around 85% though, meaning still an excellent experience on 4G and 5G, even if there’s not a big improvement.
And AT&T users on the 5G network did see median download throughput improve more than 8% versus users on 4G. That could be useful for activities like downloading a full movie, Tutela noted.
Notably, median latency was better with 4G than 5G, meaning longer round-trip time for 5G users. Rather than improving, AT&T 5G performed 8% worse on latency versus 4G.
Support for low-latency applications is one of the promises of 5G, and Tutela suggested deployments in non-standalone (NSA) mode could be a factor dragging on 5G due to added complexity.
Most early 5G deployments, including AT&T, use NSA versus standalone (SA) 5G. T-Mobile was the first, and is still the only, U.S. operator that’s launched nationwide SA 5G.
Chris Mills, senior analyst with Tutela, noted that NSA 5G still relies on an LTE tower for control signals to the handset. With standalone 5G, 4G LTE is no longer part of the picture.
“Non-standalone 5G networks are unable to use many of the improvements that promise lower latency on standalone 5G networks, and the additional overhead (having to coordinate between the LTE and 5G towers) appears to increase latency in some deployments,” Mills told Fierce via email.
Cities in Tutela's AT&T 5G analysis included:
Atlanta, GA Urbanized Area
Chicago, IL--IN Urbanized Area
Dallas--Fort Worth--Arlington, TX Urbanized Area
Detroit, MI Urbanized Area
Houston, TX Urbanized Area
Los Angeles--Long Beach--Anaheim, CA Urbanized Area
Miami, FL Urbanized Area
New York--Newark, NY--NJ--CT Urbanized Area
St. Louis, MO--IL Urbanized Area
Washington, DC--VA--MD Urbanized Area