5G Speed: How to Understand the Numbers

How fast is 5G, and how does it compare to 4G and LTE?

The Wireless Connection
The Wireless Connection
Introduction
Illustration of a really fast speed

5G is the next generation of high-speed wireless internet. It surpasses 4G in speed by at least a factor of 10, and is even faster than most people get from their wired broadband connection at home!

While that might sound impressive, it's also hard to understand what this really means for you when you’re using your phone or downloading something at home on your computer. How will 5G be faster when it comes to regular tasks like downloading apps and streaming movies?

It’s easy to talk about how much 5G will change the world, like enabling enhanced VR and AR experiences, holographic phone calls, interconnected smart cities, etc. However, to understand how fast 5G really is, let's look at some more relatable, real world examples.

5G Speed: What the Standards Call For

For a network to be considered 5G, it has to abide by certain rules set by governing authorities like 3GPP. One of those specifications is speed for uploads and downloads.

Downloading is when you receive information sent from servers on the internet (downloading apps, streaming movies and music, etc.). Uploading is when you send information to server on the internet (sharing images over Facebook, uploading videos to YouTube, hosting your own website, etc.).

There's a minimum peak download rate and a minimum peak upload rate for a network to be called a 5G network, meaning that each 5G base station has to support speeds at least this fast:

  • 5G peak download speed: 20 Gb/s (gigabits per second), or 20,480 Mb/s (megabits per second)
  • 5G peak upload speed: 10 Gb/s (gigabits per second), or 10,240 Mb/s (megabits per second)

Keep in mind that those speeds are identical, they’re just using a different unit of measurement. Also remember that bits are not the same as bytes (the above measurements are written in bits).

Because there are eight bits in every byte, to convert those 5G speeds into megabytes (MB) and gigabytes (GB), you have to divide them by eight. Many measurements are in these units instead of megabits and gigabits, so it’s important to understand both.

There are the same 5G speeds but in bytes instead of bits:

  • 5G peak download speed: 2.5 GB/s (gigabytes per second), or 2,560 MB/s (megabytes per second)
  • 5G peak upload speed: 1.25 GB/s (gigabytes per second), or 1,280 MB/s (megabytes per second)

5G also has a minimum latency requirement. Latency refers to the time lapse between when the cell tower sends data and when the destination device (like your phone) receives the data.

5G requires a minimum latency of just 4 ms assuming that ideal conditions are met, but could drop as low as 1 ms for some forms of communication, particularly ultra-reliable and low-latency communications (URLLC).

For comparison, the latency on a 4G network might be around 50–100 ms, which is actually more than twice as fast as the older 3G network!

Actual 5G Network Speeds

The measurements listed above are a reflection of 5G speeds in ideal conditions with basically no latency or interference, and only if your device is the only one using that 5G cell.

Every 5G cell supports, at minimum, one million devices for every square kilometer. Download and upload speed is split equally between every device on the same cell.

In other words, mobile users probably won't experience peak download/upload speeds. However, it is possible to get those speeds if you're using a dedicated, fixed wireless access (FWA) system where you don't have to split the bandwidth with other users.

For example, UK’s Three mobile network operator achieved a whopping 2 Gb/s download speed on a fixed wireless access (FWA) environment, but Three expects the typical user to pull in just 80 to 100 Mb/s.

That being said, how fast is 5G, really? If you were to sign up right now, what internet speeds could you expect?

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t so straightforward. Actual 5G speeds depend on not only where you’re located when you access the network but other factors like the hardware you’re using, the speeds the network is capable of, how many other users are sharing the 20+ Gb/s, and what type of interference is at play between you and the cell delivering 5G.

Verizon is one of the first companies to release 5G in the United States, so we can look at data from their actual customers to see at how fast 5G is right now, with current technology. Looking at those numbers specifically, we can see that a Verizon 5G Home user with FWA can get anywhere from 300 Mb/s to 1 Gb/s. Not only does Verizon’s 5G broadband service guarantee such speeds, users reports the same.

Beyond stats we can gather today with live 5G networks, are speculations made by carriers. T-Mobile, for example, says 450 Mb/s is the average speed a user can expect when their network goes live this year. T-Mobile also states that some 5G users might get speeds as fast as 4 Gb/s by 2024.

Some companies have measured much faster 5G speeds. Japan’s NTT DOCOMO achieved over 25 Gb/s during a 5G trial in 2018 involving a moving vehicle.

What 5G's Wireless Speed Means for You

Like we mentioned above, without examples, it can be difficult to visualize what you can do on a 5G network vs a 4G network, or any other slower connection.

Consider this: You download a movie that's 3 GB in size, using 5G, 4G, 4G LTE, and 3G networks. Here's how long it might take to download the movie on those different kinds of mobile networks (using realistic speeds, not peak speeds):

  • 3G: 1 hour, 8 minutes1
  • 4G: 40 minutes2
  • 4G LTE: 27 minutes3
  • Gigabit LTE: 61 seconds4
  • 5G: 35 seconds5

Remember that these numbers are only averages. If your 5G connection were to reach speeds of 20 Gb/s, the same movie could be saved in the blink of an eye, in just over one second.

Here are some other examples of how long it would take to download different sized files on a 5G network, assuming different speeds:

  • 1 Gb/s: Two seconds to download 75 JPG images (300 MB total)
  • 5 Gb/s: Eight seconds to download two full seasons of The Office (around 5 GB) through Netflix
  • 15 Gb/s: One minute to download a 105 GB archive of your data backed up online
  • 20 Gb/s: Under two minutes to download Avatar: Special Edition (276 GB)

Of course all of your online activities are faster on 5G but looking at really big files, like in the examples above, really show how incredibly fast things are about to get.

1) If the 3G connection averaged 6 Mb/s (0.75 MB/s), a 3 GB file (3,072 MB) would take over an hour to download (3072/0.75/60).

2) With an average download speed of 10 Mb/s (1.25 MB/s), a 3 GB movie (3,072 MB) can be downloaded fully in just over 40 minutes (3072/1.25/60).

3) Given a 15 Mb/s (1.87 MB/s) average download speed for 4G LTE, you could download a 3 GB file (3,072 MB) in just over 27 seconds (3072/1.87/60).

4) With a 400 Mb/s (50 MB/s) download speed, a 3 GB file (3,072 MB) would take just over a minute to download (3072/50).

5) Assuming a download speed of 700 Mb/s (87.5 MB/s), a 3 GB file (3,072 MB) could be downloaded in just 35 seconds (3072/87.5).