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5G prep boosts wireless speeds across US cities

RootMetrics sees strong uptick across all carriers.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read

Mobile subscribers in cities across the US are getting fasters wireless service as they await the promise of 5G. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Mobile 5G isn't here quite yet, but the investments that carriers have been making to prep for 5G in dense urban areas are already paying off with faster and more reliable service.

It's likely to only get better as the race to real 5G continues in 2019.

That's the takeaway from a report from independent network testing firm, RootMetrics. In its semi-annual report, which tests network performance for all four major US carriers in 125 metro markets across all 50 states, the firm saw some of the biggest shifts in performance among all four carriers in cities, where wireless carriers have been busy upgrading their networks to get ready for 5G.

"Across the board, we're seeing the carriers make speed and reliability a top focus across the major U.S. cities," Doug King, director of business development at RootMetrics. "While all the networks begin to lay the foundation for 5G rollouts, initial implementations are already driving slightly faster speeds and higher reliability for mobile users in metros across the country."

In terms of the testing, Verizon led the pack with the most award wins across the board. It was also the company's 11th straight overall win in the RootMetrics test.  The company recorded median download speeds of more than 20 Mbps in 111 cities out of 125 cities tested. It also scored high marks for reliability.

AT&T, which came in second overall, also saw median download speeds of more than 20 Mbps in 98 cities, an increase from 86 markets in the first half of the year.  Meanwhile, T-Mobile and Sprint also made improvements in their networks, especially when it came to speed in cities. In fact, T-Mobile delivered the fastest median download speed of any carrier at 57.0 Mbps in Flint, Michigan, while Sprint increased the number of markets in which it delivered median download speeds of at least 20 Mbps from 31 to 55 metro markets.

The race to 5G

Improvements in network performance come as the four major carriers race to deploy 5G, the next generation of cellular technology that's expected to deliver network download speeds that are 10  to 100 times faster than what's available on 4G. The network is also expected to be way more responsive, paving the way for hot technology trends like streaming VR and medical monitoring.

AT&T was the first to launch its 5G network in 12 US cities, including Atlanta, Dallas and New Orleans. Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint are each promising wide rollouts this year, too. Verizon also launched a variant of 5G as a home internet service.

But so far, no carrier has introduced a 5G mobile phone. Verizon has confirmed that Motorola's Moto Z3 will be the first Verizon 5G handset to launch.  And Samsung's 5G handset will be unveiled soon.

Still, the carriers have been busy upgrading their networks to get ready for 5G. They've added more fiber and densified radio networks by installing small cell sites throughout cities to add more capacity. They've also upgraded their 4G LTE networks with technologies like carrier aggregation, which combines channels of spectrum to provide greater network efficiency and advanced antenna technology like MIMO, which uses multiple antennas at a cell tower and on consumer devices to optimize speed, that can also be reused in 5G.  

All of this has improved performance of their existing networks, said King.

Still, he acknowledges the increase in speed on today's 4G networks are incremental and many customers may not even notice. But 5G will be a different story.  

"Consumers may not see starkly different network performance today," King said."But we can expect the carriers to continue to improve incrementally as 5G rollouts really ramp up in the coming months."

Indeed, Mike Haberman, a vice president of network engineering at Verizon, said the experience of 5G will no doubt be noticeable. Not only will people be able to download a movie in seconds rather than minutes, but their phones will feel different.

"The first thing people will notice is that their devices will just feel spunkier," he said, talking about the low-latency enabled by 5G technology. "It will feel like you've got a faster processor in your phone, because the network will just be so much more responsive."

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