Users on Verizon’s 5G network in mature deployment areas don’t yet notice much difference in performance than 4G users, according to new analysis from Tutela. However, those with 5G handsets do benefit during peak hours, when network congestion appears to weigh more heavily on the carrier’s 4G network than its less encumbered 5G.
So far, Verizon has deployed two flavors of 5G, one using millimeter wave and the other with lower band spectrum that’s shared with 4G.
Verizon’s 5G mmWave-based service, dubbed Ultra Wideband, delivers super-fast speeds and a lot of bandwidth, but the extremely limited coverage has been well documented by third-party testing. To roll out nationwide 5G service, the carrier, like AT&T, leaned on dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS), which shares existing spectrum resources between 4G and 5G rather than dedicating to a particular technology. DSS helps provide broader 5G coverage and more flexibility in migrating from LTE, but doesn’t necessarily impress with speed.
However, since the C-band auction wrapped up in March, Verizon has a lot more mid-band under its belt. Mid-band is seen as the sweet spot for both capacity and coverage compared to lower and high-band spectrum. It spent big to acquire about 160 MHz nationwide, with the first 60 MHz expected to be cleared later this year. The remainder will be put to use as it becomes available, which is still a few years out, with plans to cover 250 million people with C-band after 2024.
But in terms of current 5G performance, Tutela measured the user experience for Verizon customers with 5G-capable handsets in 10 urban markets “with mature 5G deployments” to compare against users with 4G-only smartphones in the same areas. 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.
For quality, both 4G and 5G users saw 85% of tests exceed the threshold for “excellent consistent quality,” which applies to typical applications like 1080p video streaming and group calling. But having a 5G device didn’t provide a material boost, with just around 2% improvement.
“Simply put, Verizon users upgrading from a modern 4G device to a 5G device aren’t going to see a difference for common use cases, like group HD video calls or online multiplayer games,” Tutela wrote in a recent blog.
Median download speeds were essentially the same, but still 1% slower on Verizon 5G connections than 4G. Verizon 5G users saw lower latency, with Tutela reporting a 6% improvement over 4G.
As 5G-capable devices are still making their way into consumers hands, the upgraded network has fewer users so is less burdened and Tutela’s findings showed network congestion more negatively impacted those with 4G-only smartphones.
At peak usage times between 4 a.m. and 4 p.m., Verizon users with 4G-only handsets in the test markets saw the percentage of tests below 1.5 Mbps (which Tutela said usually happens when the network is heavily loaded) increase by 5x. 5G connections still saw the percentage increase at times of high use, but had far fewer slow connections.
“Compared to other U.S. operators, Verizon is more limited in terms of spectrum per subscriber, which goes some way to explaining peak-hour performance of its 4G network,” wrote Tutela.
Tutela previously compared T-Mobile’s 5G and 4G network experience, with very similar results in terms of performance for daily applications and more impacts from congestion on the 4G network. The place where T-Mobile’s 5G users did see significant improvement was speed – with a 25% boost versus 4G. T-Mobile is using dedicated low-band 600 MHz for broad 5G coverage and gets added capacity and speed with 2.5 GHz mid-band from Sprint that it’s still working to deploy.
In addition to mmWave, “Verizon’s recently-acquired C-Band spectrum will begin rolling out as soon as this year, at which point the 5G network will be adding crucial spectrum capacity to the network,” Tutela concluded.
While Verizon’s 5G deployments don’t appear to be making much of a difference for users yet, the carrier is working to migrate more consumers and increase adoption. A new 5G smartphone promotion is part of that effort. And Ronan Dunne, chief executive of the consumer group, recently talked about the opportunity to seed the carrier’s base with C-band capable handsets, in part to upgrade customers so users will be ready when 5G service in the 3.7 GHz range gets going later in 2021.
It aims to have more than 50% of the customer base on 5G by 2023.