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AT&T 5G test drive: Not the next-gen network we were promised
Carriers in the US may have launched their commercial 5G networks in 2019, but the next-generation technology is still in its infancy. Coverage is spotty, supporting phones are still few and far between, and so far the high-speed gear in the hands of consumers has failed to meet the hype. Unfortunately, that includes AT&T 5G.
I spent several weeks testing AT&T‘s 5G network on a couple different devices and came away wholly unimpressed. There are lots of reasons why, and they’re worth digging into in our short AT&T 5G review.
See also: The best 5G phones you can buy right now
What is AT&T 5G?
5G encompasses a host of various technologies that are all supposed to reduce latency, boost speed, and improve capacity on mobile data networks. You can read our complete, in-depth explainer via the link below.
Deep dive: What is 5G?
Right now there are two major swaths of spectrum used for 5G: mmWave and sub-6GHz. While mmWave, sometimes referred to has high band spectrum, is good for raw speed (1Gbps+), it is limited by proximity to and often direct sight of the cell tower. Sub-6GHz or mid-band spectrum, on the other hand, is great at providing LTE-like coverage at lower speeds (100-600Mbps). AT&T uses both.
AT&T launched what it brands as AT&T 5G earlier this year. When AT&T says 5G, it means sub-6GHz. The sub-6 network is available from Seattle to Miami, and from San Diego to Boston. AT&T claims it offers nationwide 5G that reaches 205 million people, though enormous gaps in coverage stretch coast to coast. I’ll let you look at the coverage map (above) to determine for yourself if AT&T 5G is offered truly nationwide.
AT&T claims it offers nationwide 5G, though enormous gaps in coverage stretch coast to coast.
AT&T also offers what it brands 5G+. This 5G+ service is AT&T lingo for mmWave. AT&T’s mmWave service is available in parts of 35 markets around the country, including New York City, Los Angeles, Dallas, Baltimore, San Francisco, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, and other points around the map. When AT&T says parts of those markets are covered, that means don’t expect city-wide mmWave service. 5G+ is reserved for certain neighborhoods, such as central business districts or downtown areas.
In addition to finding the proper type of coverage, you also have to have a 5G-compatible phone. For AT&T, that selection is limited to the LG Velvet and LG V60, the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 series, Galaxy S20 series, Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G, and the Galaxy A71 5G.
Grab one of these phones, find some 5G coverage on the map, and you should be good to go, right? Not so fast (pun intended).
How we tested
I used the LG Velvet and Galaxy S20 Ultra to test AT&T 5G in various locations around the New York City region. The LG Velvet is limited to sub-6GHz 5G only, while the S20 Ultra can connect via sub-6GHz and mmWave.
I checked consumer-visible 5G indicators (e.g., the status bar), as well as service screens to determine coverage. This means I eyeballed the 5G indicator at the top of the screen and also checked signal strength and other indicators within subsystem menus.
Last, I used the Play Store-available Ookla Speed Test application on both devices to run speed tests. In addition to Ookla, I downloaded large games from the Play Store, streamed YouTube and Spotify content, and performed other real-world usage scenarios, such as uploading photos to social media.
I did not conduct hundreds upon hundreds of tests nationwide, but stuck to a single region of the country. I ran tests in various locations, both moving and still, from NYC to New Jersey, and even central Pennsylvania.
Basically, I did my best to test AT&T 5G as consumers experience it: in and around their own towns. I’m not claiming this to be the most extensive and exhaustive set of testing ever. However, I think it is representative enough of everyday use for regular smartphone users.
AT&T 5G speed test: The results
Based on my experience, if I were a consumer all excited to give 5G a whirl I’d be sorely disappointed.
To start, despite bringing the mmWave-capable S20 Ultra into Manhattan, we were unable to find or latch onto what I could determine to be mmWave coverage. That was certainly reflected in the speeds we saw.
Across all my AT&T 5G testing, the absolute fastest download speed we saw was 185Mbps and the slowest was a meager 1.79Mbps. That’s quite a range. The average speed for downloads was 50.1Mbps.
While the one peak of 185Mbps was great to see, it’s a far cry from the 600Mbps I achieved on Sprint’s and T-Mobile’s mid-band 5G networks last year. More to the point, it’s nowhere near the 2Gbps speed we achieved on Verizon’s mmWave 5G network.
By way of comparison, AT&T 5G upload speeds averaged 7.33Mbps, with a maximum of 36.5Mbps and a minimum of 0.01Mbps.
One thing worth mentioning is that AT&T is in the NSA (non-standalone) phase of deploying 5G. In the most basic terms, that means AT&T is still relying on LTE for some parts of the connection, particularly uploads. With NSA 5G, uploads can still take place over 4G and AT&T likely won’t address this until it switches to standalone (SA) 5G. T-Mobile recently deployed its first SA 5G network, promising faster upload speeds.
AT&T’s 5G numbers are better than its 4G numbers, but not by much, and, frankly, not by enough.
How do these numbers compare to AT&T’s own LTE 4G network? Well, they do in fact represent an improvement. I tested AT&T LTE in all the same places I tested 5G and came away with a maximum download speed of 132Mbps, but an average of just 29.5Mbps. Why such a low average? Most downloads were in the low teens with a lowest reading of 10Mbps.
On the LTE upload front, the max speed reached 8.5Mbps with a low of 0.18Mbps and an average of 3.4Mbps. Are AT&T’s 5G numbers better than its 4G numbers? Yes they are, but not by much and, frankly, not by enough.
The phone does matter. As noted, the LG Velvet can only use AT&T’s sub-6GHz 5G, which means it will see maximum speeds that are lower than the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, which also taps into mmWave. Granted, I didn’t see AT&T’s mmWave 5G in action, but that was because I couldn’t find it.
But what about real-world usage, you might be asking. I’ll put it quite bluntly. On Verizon’s mmWave 5G I was able to download movies and games larger than 1GB in less than a minute. On AT&T’s 5G network (as tested) the best I was able to do for the same content was 7.5 minutes.
Why so slow?
The answer, in short, is likely carrier aggregation. Carrier aggregation is when carriers band together multiple channels to effectively create one big one. The fatter the pipe, so to speak, the faster you can cram data through it. Many LTE-Advanced networks are capable of three-carrier aggregation, putting three smaller 10MHz or 20MHz channels together to create a 40MHz or even 60MHz channel. This is why AT&T’s LTE network was able to serve up that maximum speed of 132Mbps.
Read more: Where is 5G available in the US?
Checking the ServiceMode of both the Velvet and S20 Ultra revealed that sad truth: AT&T’s 5G network is not taking advantage of carrier aggregation, at least not that I could determine. The phones were running 5G through a single 5MHz channel, effectively killing any hope for the 5G performance we were expecting.
Technically speaking, AT&T is offering a 5G connection via the New Radio standard. However, the limiting 5MHz channel strangles speeds down to barely-better-than-LTE levels. It’s like putting a Porsche 911 on the Autobahn and then setting the speed limit to 25MPH.
Will AT&T 5G get better?
Clearly there’s lots of room for improvement. Over time, I expect (hope) AT&T will add more channels to allow for proper carrier aggregation and thus open up the network for faster speeds. Also, surely the network will upgrade from NSA to SA 5G NR to help with uploads.
Until then, calling this service 5G is technically true, but it’s not what the marketing hype has been promising consumers for years. I’ll repeat here what I said earlier: if I were a consumer who spent $1,000 on a phone for its 5G service, I’d be peeved about the experience AT&T delivers.
How about you? Do you have an AT&T 5G phone? If so, what has your experience been like? Fast? Slow? Let us know in the poll below.