Verizon is rolling out a new cellular service in a frequency band that could bring big performance improvements. In some cases, the gains have been large enough to push 4G performance over and above the newer 5G standard.
That’s according to PCMag’s Sascha Segan, who got an opportunity to test Verizon’s latest 4G enhancements side-by-side against the company’s mainstream 5G and UWB 5G standards. The company is deploying new spectrum in the CBRS band, a 150MHz block between 3.55 – 3.7GHz. The technology is already rolling out nationwide.
Segan compared performance at four locations. UWB 5G — that’s the high-speed, short-range, millimeter-wave variant — was available at three of them, while DSS 5G was available at four. DSS 5G stands for “Dynamic Spectrum Sharing” 5G. DSS 5G allows the same spectrum band to carry both 5G and 4G signals. Unfortunately, it’s not what you’d call a performant solution. A December 1 analysis of DSS 5G called its performance disappointing:
“Although DSS is a cool technology that negates the need for unused spectrum, DSS results in much lower spectral efficiency than LTE or 5G NR [New Radio] by itself,” wrote Mike Thelander, the president of Signals Research Group (SRG), which ran the tests. “This inefficiency hurts 5G NR and LTE performance.”
PCMag’s testing proves out that disappointing bit:
There was no chance of CBRS 4G catching UWB 5G under ideal circumstances — that’s the mmWave version that’s incredibly fast, so long as you aren’t shielded from the transmitter by a wall, glass, or particularly thick sheet of paper. Site 1 shows the potential of UWB 5G, but the other sites show the impact of CBRS’ superior range. UWB range is about 800 feet per transmitter, while CBRS can reach half a mile. CBRS is actually fast enough to put Verizon’s 4G service on par with T-Mobile’s mid-spectrum 5G service.
As a brief reminder: Only mmWave 5G delivers the kind of blazing-fast performance that would constitute an actual, meaningful network upgrade compared with top-end 4G LTE. Segan’s results demonstrate that CBRS-equipped 4G LTE is capable of matching the overall performance of 5G networks in at least some scenarios. Segan notes that Verizon should start deploying some 5G-improving spectrum by the end of the year, which may see Verizon’s 5G network outperforming its LTE network once again, so these gains may be temporary.
At the same time, these updates illustrate how meaningless the 5G push really is at this point in time, at least from the consumer perspective. Continual improvements to LTE have boosted its performance in ways non-5G users will benefit from. The mid-band improvements that should boost 5G in turn, ultimately leaving it above 4G LTE in absolute performance, should start showing up in 2022. We’ve long suggested that 2022-2023 would be the realistic year where 5G might start to be a meaningful upgrade to the average user, and that timetable still looks pretty solid.
There’s nothing wrong with buying a 5G device right now if you’re already in the market for a new smartphone, but we wouldn’t spring for one if you’re hoping for better network speeds. Unless you’re absolutely certain 5G can deliver a superior experience to your exact location right now, it probably won’t.
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