5G is now a reality. So, let’s put it to the test.
We’ll be testing the AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon 4G and 5G networks across the country next week for our 12th annual Fastest Mobile Networks run. We’ll visit 30 major cities and the rural areas in between, comparing and contrasting network performance with bespoke Ookla Speedtest field-test software.
Our tests take into account a lot more than just speed. Our grades are heavily influenced by coverage and reliability, and speed is sometimes used as a proxy for capacity, indicating where networks can take on additional subscribers without choking.
We put the testing in the hands of our own expert drivers so that we can control as many variables as possible and acquire precise data that is consistent year after year. To eliminate device and plan differences, I’ve given the drivers Samsung Galaxy S21 phones with customised SIMs that never throttle. The drivers alternate between 4G and 5G while testing on all three carriers at the same time. Other drive testing may not be as transparent or cover as many cities as ours, and results from crowdsourced tests may be skewed due to device variances other plan issues. We’ve been doing this since 2010, and we now have a decade’s worth of data on many of these cities, which is quite cool; by repeating our testing year after year, we can see how the networks have evolved from 3G to 5G.
One thing is certain: mobile networks are always evolving. AT&T took home our top prize in 2019 because to their national 4G LTE network. Verizon triumphed in 2020 due to its millimeter-wave 5G. Since then, all three main mobile networks have seen significant transformations. AT&T and Verizon have also expanded low-band 5G coverage over numerous metro areas, but it’s unclear whether those systems provide any performance improvements over 4G, while T-mid-band Mobile’s system has now reached roughly half of the US population, despite its launch only last summer. It’s anyone’s game in 2021.
And we’re already planning for the future. Between now and next year, Verizon and AT&T will build C-band 5G in up to 46 major metro areas…so regardless of whose network receives the highest marks in 2021, another might take the lead in 2022.
What Else Has Been Going On This Week?
The world’s largest mobile-technology trade expo, Mobile World Congress, was a hybrid event this year. It was strange. There hasn’t been an official tally of how many people attended in person (and how many of those were true professionals, rather than inquisitive locals drawn in by cheap tickets), but it was definitely a small fraction of the regular crowd. MWC will return in person on February 28, 2022, and I’m quite excited to attend.
The concert did produce some news, though not as much as usual:
- Elon Musk gave the opening address, expressing a far more balanced and realistic view of Starlink’s expansion than many of its ecstatic followers. He did, however, have to crack a “69/420” joke.
- The Snapdragon 888+, a slightly faster variant of the Snapdragon 888, will be available soon in a phone near you, according to Qualcomm.
- Samsung unveiled the first details of its new wearable software, which combines Samsung’s and Google’s wristwatch platforms. Later this summer, the first new watch with the software will be released.
- The TCL 20 Pro 5G phone was released in the United States for $499.99, and I’m sure it’ll be significantly cheaper when purchased directly from carriers.
- Sean Kinney of RCR Wireless, the only well-known trade journalist I know who travelled to MWC, penned a lovely ode to in-person events. Sean, see you in Barcelona next year!