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Verizon’s “nationwide 5G” may be seriously slowing down your new iPhone, a problem that also affects other new 5G phones such as the Google Pixel 5 and the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. The fix? Turning off 5G if you can.
When 5G Is Slower Than 4G
Verizon has America’s fastest mobile network based on two systems: a 4G LTE network that gets faster every year, and a blazing-fast, high-capacity millimeter-wave “ultra wideband” (UWB) 5G network. Verizon’s 4G LTE is often faster than T-Mobile’s and AT&T’s low-band 5G. But Verizon’s UWB 5G network has extremely limited coverage, potentially giving Verizon phones a 4G icon in cities where its competitors have 5G—and when you’re choosing a carrier, you’re more likely to want that little 5G icon than to dig into the nuances of network speeds.
In October, Verizon introduced “nationwide 5G” based on dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS), which reuses parts of 4G channels for 5G. Phones will automatically prefer a 5G network over a 4G one, so Verizon customers will see that coveted 5G icon pop up. But it’s all for show. Our most recent tests, using an iPhone 12 Pro in New York City, show that DSS 5G is frequently slower than 4G, and rarely faster. These results are similar to what we saw in October in Chicago with a Pixel 5.
“For most customers, performance on our 5G nationwide network will be similar to 4G. [DSS] is new technology and we’re continuing to modify it as we go. We expect performance improvement through 2021 and beyond,” a Verizon spokesperson said.
DSS: A Desperately Slow System
The gold standard of 5G is to use broad, dedicated channels for 5G traffic. That’s what Verizon’s UWB and T-Mobile’s mid-band 5G do, setting up wider channels than 4G and letting 5G speed along.
Verizon’s fast UWB 5G system has been expanding monthly—it’s now available in more than 60 cities—but because it uses very high frequencies, it has short range and doesn’t cover much area in each city.
If you don’t have any dedicated channels, DSS lets you use the odds and ends of your unused 4G channels for 5G. The 4G and 5G phones compete for the same 4G channel. The only difference is that the 5G ones are running the 5G encoding system on that channel. There are non-speed advantages to DSS—or there will be in the future, once carriers go to standalone 5G systems—but right now, you’re just getting slower performance.
In our most recent tests, we found that DSS 5G is seriously holding back both iPhones and Android phones. We compared a OnePlus 8 using DSS 5G with a Samsung Galaxy S20 FE on 4G, and we then ran tests on an iPhone 12 Pro toggling between 5G and 4G at the same locations. In both cases, DSS 5G turned in worse results than 4G LTE. Here’s how average speeds turned out on a long walk with the Android phones:
I took the iPhone 12 Pro to eight locations around New York City, where I compared 4G and 5G speeds. At the first seven locations, the 5G was DSS and generally slower than 4G. At the eighth location, the 5G was UWB and impressively fast.
DSS is supposed to have lower latency, but many of our DSS 5G tests even had slightly higher latency (by a few milliseconds) than our LTE tests, probably because of some sort of negotiation happening in Verizon’s core to manage DSS.
Verizon isn’t alone in going backward with 5G performance. We also found in our 26-city Fastest Mobile Networks tests that AT&T’s low-band “nationwide” 5G is often slower than AT&T’s 4G network.
T-Mobile may use these results to crow about its superior mid-band approach, but it should maintain some perspective. Verizon’s LTE performance was still very good. Testing against T-Mobile mid-band 5G at locations with the best performance, I got faster results on T-Mobile—up to 582Mbps compared with Verizon’s 390Mbps. But 390Mbps is still pretty great, especially for 4G.
In theory, Verizon could even out its 4G and 5G performance simply by pushing all of its traffic over 4G in situations where 5G would be slower, and lying with the icon. As Signals Research discovered, most of the traffic on “DSS 5G” is traveling over LTE anyway. I’m pretty sure the 5G icon was meaningless in my seventh test with the iPhones, which showed exactly the same performance on 4G and DSS 5G.
“The decision to use the 4G versus 5G network is based on RF conditions, but the preference is 5G where available. Again, experiences for individual customers might be different,” Verizon told me.
For now, I say just turn off 5G unless you have UWB.
How to Disable 5G on Your iPhone
If you don’t have UWB 5G coverage, you’re likely to get better Verizon performance for now by disabling 5G on your iPhone. This may go for AT&T too; it won’t be true for T-Mobile, which uses a different 5G setup.
Want to see whether you have UWB 5G? Check out Verizon’s coverage maps and keep an eye on your status bar. You want a 5G icon that says “UW” or “UWB”; if that’s missing, you’re on laggy DSS.
To turn off DSS 5G, go to Settings > Cellular > Cellular Data Options > Voice & Data, and tap on “LTE.” That will put you in 4G mode.
Unfortunately, most Verizon Android phones don’t let you turn off 5G. Check under Settings > Connections > Mobile Network > Network Mode. If there’s an option to go to LTE/CDMA rather than 5G/LTE/CDMA, choose it, but it might not be there.
Where Does Verizon Go Now? To Auction
Verizon could even the 5G score with T-Mobile in late 2021. Verizon is right now in the process of bidding for valuable mid-band 5G airwaves, a swath called the C-Band. Both AT&T and Verizon are desperate for C-Band spectrum, especially for the first 120MHz of the band, which will become available for use later in 2021. (There’s another 160MHz, that may not be usable until 2023.) C-Band is very similar to T-Mobile’s mid-band: a wide lane of clear, 5G-ready airwaves at the right frequency to cover dense cities and suburbs without having to plant a panel every few blocks.
C-Band bids are currently over $55 billion, according to analysts; the auction will go on until the bidders are exhausted, which analysts say is likely to happen early next year.
When C-Band comes online (or when you get UWB), it’ll be time to reactivate 5G on your Verizon iPhone 12. The iPhone 12 series (and maybe the Pixel 5) are the only current US phones to support C-Band, though many new ones will likely appear in 2021 as Verizon and AT&T add it to their lists of requirements.
For now, your best bet is to turn off 5G in non-UWB areas until Verizon improves performance.
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