State of Mobile USA: Quantifying the bar for 5G to beat

Ian Fogg, VP Analysis

In the last year, the download speeds experienced by smartphone users in the US have improved little, rising from 17 Mbps to 21.3 Mbps between the first quarter of 2018 and the same period in 2019. There’s lots of room for improvement but only a new technology like 5G is likely to lead to a step-change improvement in the mobile network experience.

 

Key findings

  • Opensignal has benchmarked the experience smartphone users receive in every U.S. state and the fifty largest cities immediately prior to 5G’s launch so it’s easy to see to what extent 5G offers an improvement. Carriers will find it hard to sell 5G services unless 5G offers a better mobile network experience.
  • Across 50 states the Download Speeds smartphone users experienced ranged from 32.9 Mbps in New Jersey to 12.1 Mbps in Mississippi. The fastest states were a mixture of mid-Atlantic and New England population centers alongside US heartland states Ohio and Minnesota, which ranked 4th and 5th respectively.
  • Technology hub cities did not excel when compared with the fifty largest cities: San Francisco, Seattle and Austin ranked in the bottom half of the largest fifty cities on measures of Download Speed, Upload Speed and Video Experience.
  • Baltimore and New York offered users the most responsive experience with average latencies of 44ms, but which is a long way from 5G’s single digit target.
  • Cleveland (33.8 Mbps) and Minneapolis (32.2 Mbps) offered users the fastest Download Speed Experience across the fifty largest cities. Speeds in the leading cities were almost twice as fast as bottom-placed Oklahoma City.
  • New York and Salt Lake City's high upload speeds offer the best experience for sharing smartphone photos and video.
  • Hollywood-host Los Angeles ranked just 30th for mobile Video Experience with a score of 53.3, which rates as just "Fair" in Opensignal's metric.

 

5G experiences must be compared with existing mobile services

With 5G services arriving in the US, mobile telecom carriers are looking to highlight the superior experience of the latest generation of mobile network technology. However, consumers will only be convinced of carriers’ 5G marketing claims if the real-world 5G experience is superior to what is possible with the older 3G and 4G technologies that remain in wide use.

To provide the benchmark with which to compare each new 5G launch across the U.S., Opensignal has analyzed the mobile network experience of smartphone users at the beginning of this year,  immediately before the launch of smartphone-compatible 5G services. As the new 5G services are rolling out city by city, we examined the experience by U.S. state and for each of the fifty largest U.S. cities.

Carriers are hoping that a better experience using 5G will either help them to boost rates of subscriber acquisition or enable them to charge more for an improved mobile service and, in time, open up entirely new product areas.

 

Fastest speeds are in north and north-eastern states, not in the tech hubs of the west coast

 

Across the US the download speeds smartphone users experience varies from just 12.1 Mbps in Mississippi to 32.9 Mbps in New Jersey. While it’s not surprising to see a cluster of Eastern Seaboard states – including New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island – highly ranked, it’s more unexpected to see heartland states like Ohio and Minnesota ranked 4th and 5th in Download Speed Experience.

Most striking is the experience offered by states that are known as hubs for leading technology companies. California, home to both Silicon Valley and the movie industry, ranked just 19th in Download Speed Experience while Washington state, home to Amazon and Microsoft’s HQs, ranked 16th. New 5G spectrum offers greater capacity which can help to support the higher data consumption of the technology savvy, helping to boost average speeds for all.

 

City metrics are key to compare because new mobile tech like 5G launches in cities first

Verizon’s two launch cities for its smartphone-based 5G service went live at the start of April. Interestingly, existing smartphones users in both Chicago and Minneapolis already have a well-above-average mobile network experience compared with the fifty largest cities in the U.S. Minneapolis ranked second in Download Speed Experience while Chicago ranked fourth for Upload Speed Experience and sixth for Latency Experience.

AT&T has a similarly city-focused target list for its initial 5G rollout as do Sprint and T-Mobile. To date, AT&T’s service has been limited to users with mobile broadband Wifi hotspot devices and not cellular smartphone users. But the distribution of AT&T's 5G launch cities is much broader than its competitors, with cities with a weak mobile network experience like Oklahoma City, Austin, Houston, Charlotte and New Orleans being among the first cities to receive 5G services from AT&T.

Opensignal will be monitoring the 4G experience as 5G services roll out, as well as the 5G services, because upgrades to cell sites and cell site backhaul connections that are needed to offer the full speed of 5G to users will also add additional capacity that should benefit 4G users. If so, we will see improvements in the mobile network experience of non-5G users either just before or around the time of 5G launches.

 

Higher upload speeds makes sharing photos and videos easier

To understand the true mobile network experience it’s critical to look at multiple measures. Higher upload speeds enable smartphone users to share their content on social media. While there is a correlation between higher upload speeds and higher download speeds, it’s not perfect, and some cities are stronger on delivering a great Upload Speed Experience than would be expected by looking at their download speeds alone.

Users in New York City experience slightly slower download speeds than in Minneapolis or Cleveland, but have significantly higher upload speeds. Arguably, the overall speed experience is strongest in New York. Other cities which are especially strong in enabling a sharing experience based on relatively high upload speeds include Salt Lake City, San Francisco and Chicago.

 

5G aims to improve latency as well as speeds

While much of the initial discussion around 5G has centred around the speeds it could potentially deliver, the designers of this latest mobile technology generation have also aimed to dramatically improve the responsiveness, or latency, of the mobile connection. This will benefit online gamers and those smartphone users making voice calls or video chats using their smartphone’s Internet connection.

Today, the Latency Experience which 5G must better, ranges from 44.1ms in Baltimore to a much less responsive 66.4ms in Memphis in our measurements. These times represent the true end-to-end latency smartphone users experience.

The designers of the 5G standards aim to reduce the latency on the wireless part of the connection to 1ms and similarly to dramatically reduce the latency in the carriers’ core network to a similar low figure. This would mean end-to-end latency on a smartphone would likely drop to well under 10ms, which is a very long way from the current experience of smartphone users across US cities.

 

4G will be the mainstream mobile technology for the next few years

In even the lowest-scoring US city for 4G Availability, smartphone users spend 94.7% of the time connected to 4G rather than older technologies such as 3G. Opensignal expects it will be years before smartphone users spend as much time connected to 5G networks as they do 4G networks and hence measures of 4G mobile experience such as 4G Availability will continue to be important. For example, mobile industry organization GSMA forecasts that in 2025 5G subscriptions will still be in the minority in North America and will represent just 49% of total mobile subscriptions.

As 5G launches and extends its availability across the U.S., the table below compares the current real-world mobile experience. We can use this to see to what extent 5G is an improvement on the existing experience, across each of Opensignal’s main measures of mobile network experience: Download Speed, Upload Speed, Latency, 4G Availability and Video Experience.