Planning to Buy the 5G iPhone 12 This Fall? Here’s What You Can Expect from Your Carrier

iPhone 12 Concept Credit: Hasan Kaymak
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Although it’s still not entirely certain exactly when we’ll see Apple’s 5G iPhone, it’s a pretty safe bet that whether it’s in September or whether it’s in November, it’s definitely coming before the end of the year. However, if you’re excited to get your hands on a shiny new iPhone 12 for its 5G technology, you may want to take a step back and consider whether your carrier is going to actually be ready for it.

A new report by Opensignal reveals what can only be described as a very mixed bag in terms of what you can expect from the various carriers across the United States, and although obviously your chances of getting strong 5G coverage in major cities is going to be higher than in rural areas, it seems that it still varies more by carrier than it does by region.

For example, Verizon has already been deploying the faster mmWave 5G more widely than its competitors, so if you happen to be one of the cities where that’s covered, you can expect maximum download speeds of up to 506Mbps — assuming you can get an mmWave signal, that is, since their much shorter range means that you’ll likely be connected to mmWave less than 1% of the time.

It’s also worth noting that since Verizon uses the mmWave spectrum exclusively, when you’re not on mmWave, you’ll be back on 4G LTE.

By contrast, T-Mobile has some of the widest 5G coverage in the U.S., having proudly rolled out its nationwide 5G network last December and now boasting more than 2.5x the coverage of its rivals, the lower 600MHz network frequency means that you’re not likely to see download speeds much different than using 4G LTE on a good day — around 47Mbps, according to Opensignal, and AT&T didn’t fare much better, offering speeds of just under 63Mbps on its 850MHz 5G network.

It’s not just in the U.S., either. Opensignal compared the 5G experience across four leading countries: Australia, South Korea, the U.S., and the U.K., covering ten 5G operators that all launched their 5G services at least six months ago, and ultimately found that “5G” is going to mean very different things depending on what country you’re in and what carrier you’re on.

What’s particularly interesting is that while Verizon completely dominated the list of carriers in all four countries, with maximum download speeds more than two times higher than its next-nearest rival, the South Korean carrier LG U+, it was the only 5G carrier to come out ahead of any other foreign carrier; Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile all came in last place, with only Sprint offering download speeds above 100Mbps. Of course, as T-Mobile and Sprint continue to consolidate their networks, T-Mobile’s speeds will undoubtedly rise to meet those offered by Sprint.

Opensignal noted that the biggest differences were based on the 5G frequency spectrums that each carrier used, however they also saw quite a bit of variability that could be attributed to other factors, such as channel width, overall network capacity, and the performance of each operator’s core network.

Still Better Than 4G LTE

Although the 5G speeds offered by many of these carriers don’t seem all that impressive at first blush, Opensignal found that in every single case, 5G download performance outperformed that same carrier’s 4G LTE network, in many cases by a huge margin.

In fact, all three-and-a-half carriers in the U.S. offer about the same average LTE download speeds, hovering around 27Mbps, with AT&T only slightly leading at 32.7Mbps, and all of these are slower by at least half of their 5G offerings.

Again, Verizon was the most significant here, thanks to its use of mmWave, with its 506Mbps 5G speeds eclipsing the 27.4Mbps that can be delivered over its 4G LTE network. Again, though, it’s important to keep in mind that you’re not likely to find Verizon’s 5G ultra-fast coverage outside of the downtown cores of major urban areas, so you’re still going to spend most of your time using the carrier’s LTE network, and if Verizon continues to stick with mmWave technology, that likely won’t soon change, as mmWave deployments require a much higher density of transceivers due to their shorter range.

Speed is far from the only important measure of the 5G experience. How much time users are able to enjoy that experience is equally important. There is little point in having the potential to enjoy 5G, if that 5G experience is not often available.

On T-Mobile and Sprint, the 47Mbps and 114.2Mbps speeds should represent a noticeable improvement over the average 26-27Mbps LTE speeds offered by both carriers, and again, T-Mobile only stands to improve as it integrates with Sprint.

T-Mobile’s efforts to spread out its 5G coverage haven’t been completely in vain, however, as it is now the global leader in coverage, if not in speed (although we can infer an obvious tradeoff between the two from the results). According to Opensignal, T-Mobile users spent the most time connected to 5G — just under 20% — with South Korean operates following behind in the 12.6% to 15.4% range.

What This Means

Depending on where you live, you may not benefit all that much from having a 5G iPhone this year, with most carriers showing decent but not substantial performance improvements that are also likely to vary widely depending on where and how you use your iPhone.

If you’re on Verizon and lucky enough to live and work in a built-up urban area where its mmWave 5G is widely available, you’ll potentially getting staggering speeds with Apple’s new 5G iPhone — assuming the mmWave version is even available this fall —  but if not, the lack of any lower-band 5G coverage means you’ll either need to switch to another carrier or live with 4G LTE.

Users on AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint won’t likely be seeing multi-hundred megabit download speeds anytime soon, but they’ll at least have the 5G icon in their status bar most of the time (and we mean a real 5G icon), and are almost guaranteed to do at least a bit better on 5G than on 4G LTE.

It’s also important to keep in mind that there’s a lot more to 5G than just raw speed. It also offers higher network capacities and lower latency, meaning that you’ll also get a more responsive connection and it won’t be bogged down nearly as much as LTE is when there are a lot of people in the same area using the same network, such as at concerts and sporting events, or even just in built-up downtown areas, all of which will be very relevant once we’re all allowed to go back out and gather in groups again, which we’re all certainly hoping we’ll have the opportunity to do by the time Apple releases its 5G iPhone later this year.

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