Verizon’s ‘Nationwide 5G’ Still Isn’t All It’s Cracked up to Be

Verizon 5g Sign Credit: Verizon
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If you’re fortunate enough to live within range of Verizon’s “Ultra Wideband” mmWave network, there’s little doubt that you’ll get some of the most amazing 5G speeds possible on your iPhone 12, but those that aren’t blessed to have a mmWave transceiver on their block will probably find that Verizon’s 5G service just isn’t living up to the hype.

Despite Verizon aggressively promoting its nationwide 5G coverage, recent studies have shown that its sub-6GHz 5G network actually lags quite a bit behind those of its rivals — at least when those studies actually focus on the lower-frequency bands and stay away from the mmWave side.

You see, Verizon’s mmWave coverage has been skewing the numbers significantly in its favour, especially since for the longest time that was the only flavour of 5G coverage that Verizon offered. An independent study early last year pegged Verizon as the fastest 5G carrier on the planet, with download speeds almost twice as fast as South Korea’s 5G carriers, and eight times faster than AT&T and T-Mobile.

However, those numbers should have come with a pretty big asterisk, in that you needed to live in the core of a major metropolitan area to get 5G coverage from Verizon at all back then.

Even now that Verizon has greatly expanded its 5G coverage, the blazing fast speeds available in areas with mmWave support are belying the fact that the numbers are much poorer everywhere else.

In fact, a series of tests conducted by PC Magazine last fall actually led to the conclusion that most Verizon users were actually better off disabling 5G entirely and relying on the company’s 4G LTE network instead. Not only will it likely be faster than Verizon’s sub-6GHz 5G, but it’s easier on your iPhone’s battery too.

Verizon itself even obliquely copped to this fact, advising users that they could conserve battery life by “turning on LTE.”

While Verizon’s tweet didn’t go so far as to admit that this actually meant turning off 5G, that’s essentially exactly what the instructions are directing users to do; the more accurate (and honest) phrasing would be telling users to “switch to LTE.”

What’s Going on Here?

Unlike T-Mobile, which has built-out a “true” 600MHz 5G network, Verizon and AT&T have both been relying on something known as “dynamic spectrum sharing” (DSS), which essentially uses 4G LTE channels to carry 5G signals.

In other words, in most areas through the U.S., Verizon hasn’t set up new 5G towers or allocated new frequencies. What it’s doing is using the odds and ends of “leftover” 4G LTE frequencies to carry a 5G signal. For obvious reasons, this doesn’t deliver the kind of performance that 5G is truly capable of.

The real-world results also bear this out. Earlier this year, an independent analysis of U.S. carriers from OpenSignal revealed that T-Mobile’s 5G network was running circles around both Verizon and AT&T, especially since 49 percent of T-Mobile users could connect to the carrier’s optimal “Ultra Capacity” 5G network, while only 5 percent of Verizon users could benefit from the faster mmWave technology.

That said, Verizon isn’t sitting still — the carrier recently dropped $45 billion on 5G spectrum that will undoubtedly help it to create its own full-fledged 5G network rather than relying on the scraps of 4G LTE available from each of its towers. However, that likely won’t even begin to start bearing fruit until the end of this year, and until then, if you’re an iPhone 12 user on Verizon, you may find there’s really no point in leaving 5G enabled.

In fact, as The Verge reports, despite Verizon’s big 5G C-band spectrum win earlier this month, it’s actually still only deploying the 3.5GHz CBRS frequencies that sit near the C-band, which Verizon acquired last year, which means that its 4G LTE service is continuing to get even better in many areas while its 5G remains somewhat stagnant.

PC Magazine’s Sascha Segan, has followed up on the original series of tests back from December with a new analysis that reveals that thanks to these CBRS improvements, Verizon’s new 4G now soundly trounces its 5G service in most locations.

Verizon is rolling out an enhancement to 4G that absolutely blows away its own “nationwide” 5G, and that shows good signs for the new C-band 5G coming in 2022. CBRS, a set of airwaves close to the C-band, has quietly started rolling out nationwide.

Sascha Segan, PC Magazine

While Verizon’s mmWave 5G was still mind-bogglingly faster in those tests where an actual mmWave transceiver was nearby, the much better range of CBRS 4G LTE meant that in at least one test, it actually beat out the mmWave signal too.

In every case, however, the DSS 5G offered by Verizon paled in comparison to the 4G LTE speeds, meaning that Segan’s iPhone 12 actually showed slower network performance with 5G switched on.

C-band will almost certainly perform better than CBRS. It’s roughly the same frequency, but runs at a higher power level and (in Verizon’s case) with more spectrum. Considering how well CBRS performs, that’s a very good sign.

Sascha Segan, PC Magazine

Of course, Segan does concede that this won’t be the case forever. Since the 3.5GHz CBRS band sits right below the C-band 5G that Verizon has just successfully licensed, the 4G performance may actually herald what’s to come when Verizon does eventually rollout the dedicated 5G service on the C-band. However, that’s not expected to happen until next year at the earliest.

Meanwhile, however, if you’re on Verizon and not getting the 5G speeds you’d expect, it looks like it may very well be worth just disabling 5G entirely and relying on 4G LTE. Or you can simply switch to T-Mobile.

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