ITEM: The latest independent speed tests from Opensignal indicate that 5G – even at this early stage – is definitely delivering faster download speeds than 4G. But for upload speeds and latency, it’s pretty much 4G business as usual.
For obvious reasons, Opensignal’s sample base is limited to South Korea and the US, where 5G has been commercially launched, but according to a new blog post from Ian Fogg, VP of analysis at Opensignal, Korea serves as the better benchmark for aspiring 5G markets because (1) 5G has been deployed on a much larger scale by all three operators, who have also managed to sign up at least 1 million 5G subscribers between them, and (2) their customers are using proper 5G smartphones (the Samsung S10 5G and LG V50), as opposed to the US, where the only 5G smartphone option for now is a Moto Z3 with a clip-on 5G attachment.
Anyway, the South Korea results are encouraging – Opensignal reports that Samsung and LG 5G phones are registering average download speeds of 111.8 Mbps, which is 48% faster than 4G users who own flagship smartphones from Samsung and LG (including the Samsung S9 and S10 family and LG’s G7 and G8) and 134% higher than users with other 4G smartphones.
If 111.8 Mbps sounds way short of the 5G hype, that’s the average speed. Opensignal has recorded maximum 5G download speeds in South Korea as high as 988 Mbps (although that’s still less than half of the 2.6 Gbps that SK Telecom promised customers earlier this year).
In the US, meanwhile, maximum speeds have manage to crack the 1 Gbps barrier. Fogg says he fully expects the speed averages to grow as 5G coverage grows, more 5G spectrum becomes available and vendors work out minor technical kinks like phones failing to drop down to 4G when the users moves out of range of the 5G signal.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that when it comes to other network performance metrics – namely, upload speeds and (crucially for 5G) latency – there’s almost no difference whatsoever between 5G and 4G. In fact, depending on which handset you’re using, 4G is actually better.
The reason is pretty simple, says Fogg: the 5G deployed in South Korea is the non-standalone (NSA) variety that leverages existing 4G networks:
At the moment, 5G smartphone users connect to both a 4G spectrum band and a 5G New Radio (NR) band simultaneously in what is called Non-Standalone Access mode. Effectively the system is using 5G for raw download bandwidth, but uses 4G for other network functions.
Which means that with the current iteration of NSA 5G, users are getting 5G-level downlink speeds but 4G latency and … well, everything else.
Not that it matters – the first wave of 5G launches in both Korea and the US were as much about bragging rights and marketing chutzpah as actually upgrading the network. And as long as some part of the network technically complies with 3GPP Release 15, you get to call it 5G, so who am I to be critical?