mmWave 5G is almost thirty times faster than public Wifi, but with similar reach

When away from home or work, users have to choose what kind of connectivity best meets their needs. For years, users have connected to public Wifi at the first opportunity, under the assumption it was faster (and cheaper) than cellular. Opensignal’s latest analysis demonstrates that the arrival of 5G means this is no longer always the case in the U.S.

There are big differences in 5G experience depending on the frequencies used for 5G service. Some types of 5G have very similar availability to public Wifi. For example, Opensignal’s 5G smartphone users spend approximately 0.5% of their time connected to 5G mmWave while they typically spend 20-30% of time connected to the more common type of 5G using frequency bands under 6 GHz in the U.S. In effect, 5G mmWave’s reach is much more limited than other types of 5G and is similar to public Wifi.

Speeds vary greatly too. With the most common 5G technology — using frequency bands under 6 GHz — our smartphone users see download speeds almost three times faster on 5G (63.9 Mbps) than using public Wifi (21.9 Mbps). But despite the similar availability of 5G mmWave and public Wifi, smartphone users’ average speeds with 5G mmWave — 640.5 Mbps — are almost thirty times faster than those seen when using public Wifi.

Public Wifi has many differences to cellular, which explains users’ weaker speeds compared with cellular and with other types of Wifi location, for example at home or in the office:

  • Interference from competing signals. Public Wifi uses unlicensed spectrum that anyone can use and so in the locations where users most commonly connect to public Wifi (e.g. cafes, stores, transport hubs) there are usually multiple Wifi networks competing for the same scarce wireless frequencies and creating interference due to the unmanaged nature of Wifi, which slows real-world speeds. In residential locations, building density tends to be lower and as a result, there are fewer competing Wifi signals. In comparison, 5G and 4G use dedicated wireless spectrum that only one carrier is licensed to use so there is no interference 1.

  • Slow wired broadband foundations. Public Wifi is an add-on to enable users to share and connect to a wired broadband connection. If that wired broadband is not very fast because it was installed years ago and has not been upgraded, or if there are too many users sharing the capacity then again speeds will suffer. Cellular carriers will usually upgrade the backhaul connections to each cellular base station to ensure wired connectivity does not hold back users’ experience.

  • Not enough high quality Wifi access points. Owners of public Wifi hotspots often offer Wifi service for free and so have little incentive to ensure there are enough Wifi access points to create a good signal everywhere and poor signal strength can also impact speed. Or, they may not have upgraded their Wifi access points to the latest Wifi 5 or 6 standards. In homes, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) often upgrade households’ Wifi equipment alongside broadband speed upgrades.

There are different types of 5G experience. The fastest and highest capacity 5G, mmWave, uses extremely high frequencies that have limited coverage and are more akin to Wifi. Carriers that wish to cover a city seamlessly in mmWave 5G need to deploy many more mmWave antennas and base stations than for 4G or sub-6 GHz 5G services. Again this makes 5G mmWave more similar to Wifi, than traditional cellular networks. 

When we analyze upload speeds, the benefit of 5G over the older 4G generation shines through. Users connecting with 5G mmWave see average upload speeds of 33.3 Mbps which is almost three times faster than the 11.2 Mbps when using public Wifi. Other types of 5G are also faster, but users connecting with 4G see average upload speeds of 8 Mbps, which is 3.2 Mbps slower than when connecting to public Wifi. Upload speed is important for sharing to social media, sending large email attachments, making video calls, and connecting to work networks using virtual private networks (VPNs). 

Wireless industry vendors have placed great store on the potential of 5G mmWave to transform the mobile experience with vastly more capacity and speed. Opensignal’s data highlights just how superior the 5G mmWave can be when it’s available. And, that lightning fast 5G mmWave experience is especially stark when compared with the public Wifi alternative. 

Wifi will continue to have a role both in the home, at work, and in public locations. But increasingly Wifi will complement cellular as a free or cheap option — not because it is faster — or to support the many existing devices that are able to connect to Wifi today but which cannot connect to cellular because they lack the necessary cellular hardware.

Carriers have an opportunity to use 5G mmWave to transform users’ experience in dense urban locations where Wifi’s use of shared, unlicensed, spectrum hurts speeds. Similarly, device makers that include 5G cellular connectivity, rather than only Wifi or older cellular technology, can lift many more users out of the public Wifi slow lane.


End note

1 In the U.S. one unique exception is the CBRS band which is managed as a shared spectrum license model. Read more about the CBRS part of the 3.5 GHz band on the FCC website.