Verizon’s mmWave 5G May Be Really Fast, But You Probably Won’t Care 99% of the Time

iPhone 12 5G UW indicator Credit: Verizon
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When Apple unleashed its first 5G iPhones on the world last fall, it naturally invited Verizon onto the virtual stage, so it could talk about its insanely fast 5G speeds, capable of reaching a staggering 4Gbps. It was a bold marketing move, but one that should have come with a large asterisk beside it.

While it’s true that Verizon has the fastest 5G speeds in the U.S. by a considerable margin, due to its deployment of ultrafast mmWave 5G technology, the sad reality is that this isn’t universally true across the U.S., since the frequencies used by mmWave are ridiculously short in range compared to other cellular technologies.

What this means in practical terms, if you’re lucky enough to live in one of the relatively small urban areas that have strong mmWave coverage, you will indeed get crazy multi-gigabit speeds on your new iPhone 12. Everyone outside those areas, however, will be stuck on the sub-6GHz 5G frequencies, which offer much longer range, but also much slower speeds.

In fact, recent studies have shown that in many cases, Verizon users who don’t have mmWave coverage are actually better off on the company’s 4G LTE network — they’ll not only get slightly faster speeds, but expend less battery life in the process.

While this will certainly improve as Verizon rolls out its newly acquired C-Band spectrum on the 5G side, that’s not expected to even begin until sometime next year. To add insult to injury, however, Verizon will also be making users pay more to access these faster speeds when they eventually do roll out.

‘Quantifying the mmWave 5G Experience’

Now, to top this all off, a new report from OpenSignal reveals just how rare it actually is to find an mmWave 5G signal in the U.S., concluding that while Verizon still offers the fastest speeds by a considerable margin — three times faster than AT&T and T-Mobile, on average — the reality is that more than 99% of its customers aren’t going to be able to take advantage of them.

Real-world numbers show that Verizon users are connected to mmWave 5G only a mere 0.8% of the time. While that’s almost double the number from what OpenSignal reported in June 2020, that’s not really saying all that much, since it still means that users spend 99.2% of their time on slower 5G or 4G LTE networks.

Opensignal’s data shows that Verizon still holds a significant edge in the download speeds we recorded on mmWave 5G compared to its competitors. However, despite seeing some extremely fast download and upload speeds across the mmWave 5G networks in the U.S., our data shows that it is still rare for users to experience the blisteringly fast mmWave 5G speeds.

In fact, in its recent 5G User Experience Report, OpenSignal determined that Verizon users were only connected to a 5G signal of any kind 11.2% of the time — a number that’s far behind T-Mobile’s 33.1% or even AT&T at 20.5%.

This was an increase for all three carriers since last year, which should be expected as they continue building out their 5G networks, although even in this case, T-Mobile seems to be moving the fastest, jumping by a full three percent over last year’s estimate. By comparison, AT&T and Verizon each gained only 1.7% compared to last year.

OpenSignal has also added a new metric this year for “5G Reach” which it defines as “the proportion of locations where 5G users have connected to 5G out of all the locations those users have visited, on a scale of 0-10.” Essentially, it’s a metric based on locations rather than durations.

On this scale, T-Mobile also came out on top, with a score of 6.8, while AT&T scored 4.9, and Verizon only 3.2. This once again illustrates that users are more likely to stay connected to T-Mobile’s 5G network as they travel between various locations, while AT&T and Verizon users are more likely to fall back to 4G LTE.

The report also measured several other factors, including video, gaming, and voice app experiences, as well as download and upload speeds, presenting winners in each category. Verizon and AT&T tied for 5G Games Experience — the only category in which Verizon came out even partially on top — while AT&T took the top honours for 5G Video Experience and 5G Voice App Experience. T-Mobile won for 5G Availability, 5G Reach, 5G Download Speeds, and 5G Upload Speeds.

Our data confirms that speed alone is not sufficient to offer users a great video streaming experience, and we can see another example of that in this report, as T-Mobile placed last in our Video Experience category, despite winning our 5G Download Speed award by a sizeable margin.

Notably, as OpenSignal’s results demonstrate, raw upload and download speeds — a category in which T-Mobile soundly came out on top — don’t always translate to best gaming or video streaming performance. For instance, gaming requires lower latency for faster ping times, which is quite different from raw speed.

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