Big swings in urban 4G speeds highlight why the US needs 5G

Posted on February 20, 2019 by Kevin Fitchard

Wildly seesawing 4G speeds throughout the day are common in U.S. cities. Over a 24-hour period consumers in major metro areas will often see their 4G Download Speeds drop by 20 Mbps or more as consumer demand increases and networks become more congested. It's not a issue that should be taken lightly. The consistency of our network connections will determine the mobile content and services they are able to support. Developers are forced to design their apps for the slowest speeds seen throughout the day, which is precisely the time most consumers want to use those apps. Luckily 5G will provide some relief, and in the U.S. that relief will start arriving this year.

In Opensignal's The 5G Opportunity report published today, we found that over 24 hours there were huge fluctuations in speed in countries all around the globe, an issue that 5G networks will help address by providing solid foundations of capacity that will help even out the peaks and troughs we see in speed over the day. Our analysis further found that cities stand to benefit most from this 5G infusion as the problems of consistency are exacerbated in urban areas. Cities are where the majority of mobile users live and where congestion levels often reach their zenith. We definitely see that trend playing out in the U.S. The hour-by-hour fluctuations in download speed are far bigger in the 20 largest cities in the U.S. than for the country as a whole.

At a national level, average 4G Download Speeds in the U.S. ranged from 15.3 Mbps at the busiest hour — when the most users were consuming the greatest amount of data on the network — to 28.8 Mbps at the quietest hour. But when we look at our top 20 cities we see that range expands in every instance. Miami was the least consistent of the 20 with speeds yo-yoing between 17 Mbps and 43.2 Mbps over the course of a day. Baltimore, Chicago and New York City also had sizable fluctuations in speed with differences of 20 Mbps or more depending on the time. But even the highest performing city in our analysis was far from consistent. Denver's optimal-time 4G Download Speed of 30 Mbps was still nearly double its most-congested-time speed of 15.3 Mbps.

It's interesting, though, when we compare the speed at the hour of day when users’ experience is fastest and the hour with the slowest speeds in each metro area to the overall average 4G Download Speed. In every case, a city's fastest-hour speed was well above its average, while its slowest-hour speed was only 3 to 5 Mbps below its average. That tells us two things:

  • Urban 4G networks are likely congested as the average connections are nowhere near the high speeds networks can support under optimal conditions.
  • Operators are doing a good job managing the vast number of users awake and using their smartphones at the busiest times in their major markets. Even the speeds at the busiest hours are only a few megabits shy of city averages in every case.

We should also point out that there were several cities in the top 20 that did an admirable job of maintaining fast connections even while dealing with inconsistent and congested networks. Baltimore, Boston, Minneapolis and New York City were all among the cities with the greatest swings in speed in our analysis. The different experiences of smartphone users across US cities reflects the degree of success of operator investments in networks, the ease of deploying fiber backhaul, state and city planning process differences, and the varied spectrum holdings allocations between US metro areas. In these cities, the operators managed to keep average speeds above 20 Mbps even when their networks were under the most strain.

For a final set of datapoints, let's look at the specific hours of the day where 4G Download Speeds were fastest and slowest in each city. We can see in our measurements that the busy times of day vary by city and range from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. For the U.S. as a whole, however, the busiest hour falls at 8 p.m., which was the case for only one city in our top 20: St. Louis. That means there's something about living in dense metropolitan areas that causes consumers to load up their networks earlier in the day. One possible explanation is that big cities often have big commutes. Whether its streaming music or using navigation services while trapped in gridlock on an LA freeway or catching up on your favorite TV program while riding the 'L' in Chicago, the peak usage hours for these cities tends to fall mainly within the 4-6 p.m. rush hour period.

As for the fastest hour of the day, that landed between 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. for all 20 cities, which makes sense. Few people are actually awake, much less consuming data in the dead of night. This fairly closely mirrors the global picture, where the fastest hours in the countries we analysed were between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m.

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