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The truth about 5G speed (PLUS: 5 free apps to test it with)

5G speed
(Image credit: Future)
Complete guide to 5G

(Image credit: Future)

5G technology: how it works
4G vs 5G: how they compare
5G use cases: examples of 5G
5G Dangers: the fact and fiction
5G Internet: will it replace fibre
5G speed: guide and tools
5G deals: get the best offers
5G phones: discover the best
5G networks: in the US and UK
5G stocks: investment tips

How fast is 5G? That's what we're here to answer. But as usual with such a broad question, there are numerous caveats.

It simply isn't possible to give a speed for a 5G network without further qualification. That's because of a few reasons, but primarily that there are different types of 5G

It's certainly true that confusion still remains over just how fast 5G networks can be. And that's because many networks will evolve over time and will get faster, so the speeds we're seeing on 5G now don't reflect where we'll be in a few years time. 

And, of course, there are variations between networks at present - the faster mmWave technology is being used in the US, for example, but not everywhere. However, in Europe that technology hasn't yet arrived, so the peak speeds in built-up areas are significantly lower than you'd get in mmWave areas in the US. 

In our 5G technology explainer, we outlined four of these flavours and in this article, we’re going to delve deeper into the truth behind these 5G speeds – what the terms mean, theoretical versus real-world speeds, and the best apps and services that reveal what 5G speeds you’re getting.

Of course, there are many other factors, too, which is why these early days of 5G are somewhat complicated. Let us explain further. 

The different types of 5G  

There are four significant types of 5G ranging from so-called standard 5G to industrial 5G. We've outlined the key categories in the table below. Read more about these on our 5G technology page. 

The speeds achieved on each flavour vary based on the technology and how the data and signals are being used. The deployment of each also varies between networks and, mmWave networks - sometimes referred to as 5G Plus - aren't yet available in the UK and Europe, for example. 

One of the key problems is that networks aren't straight-talking about what kind of 5G they are using - primarily to obfuscate the fact they haven't rolled out faster 5G services as yet (some even pretend they're offering a 5G-level of service when, in fact, they're not). All this can be an issue when comparing services, even if we're not really at the stage where 5G speeds would dictate whether you'd stay with a network or not. 

The main thing to avoid is anything in the first category - so sub-standard 5G services that actually aren't 5G at all. This is a problem in the US currently with certain services but isn't an issue in the UK.

5G flavoursDescription
5G Minus or 5GEAlso known by many other names including 4G+, 5GE, 4G LTE Plus, 4G LTE Advanced, 4G LTE-A and even 4.5G, refers to data speeds that are faster than those offered by Gigabit LTE but don’t yet technically reach the minimum requirements to be officially classified as 5G.
Standard 5GThis is often referred to as “sub-6GHz” 5G or “everyday 5G” and, as the name suggests, will be the standard, everyday networks consumers will typically use on a daily basis.
5G PlusAlso known as Total 5G or 5G+, this describes the speeds quoted by manufacturers when talking about 5G. These are the maximum achievable in real-world scenarios, rather than in lab tests.
Industrial 5GThis refers to the speeds expected to be seen in factories and manufacturing spaces that will power IoT devices by combining standards to boost the maximum.

 5G speed standards 

For each iteration of mobile technology, standards are put in place by a group called 3GPP to make sure the technology reaches a certain set of benchmarks, to protect consumers and regulate how the technology is deployed and used. 

3GPP is the standards body for mobile telecoms and, as its name suggests, the partnership was originally put together for 3G in the early 1990s. It combines the standards bodies from key areas - such as Europe - and territories - such as South Kore, Japan and China. 

Other key partners are organisations that bind together other organisations with an interest in telecoms standards. These include the GSMA - the trade body that joins together mobile operators - and the Wireless Broadband Alliance, intended to further interoperability between Wi-Fi standards. 

Within the 5g standards is a minimum speed that must be achieved for an operator to be classified as having a “5G network” and this has been set at 20Gbps downlink and 10Gbps uplink per mobile base station

The latter point is key. These are the minimum download and upload speeds that must be achievable by a single cell on a network. They aren’t the minimum speeds consumers will see, or should expect, on their devices. In short, this is a standard for networks to achieve, not for consumers or businesses to achieve. 

In theory, if you were connected directly to a single cell via a fixed-line and weren’t sharing this connection with any other users, you could reach these speeds. Such speeds have been achieved in lab conditions. In fact, lab tests have hit staggering speeds of 1Tbps.  

Results you get in the real world won't hit maximum limits.

(Image credit: Future / Techradar)

Of course, in the real world where we’re surrounded by billions of connected devices all receiving and sending signals simultaneously, these maximum speeds are out of reach. 

The reality, instead, is that those 20Gbps will instead be split between every device connected to a cell. What’s more, seeing as 5G cells must also be able to support at least 1 million connected devices per square kilometre, chances are these speeds will be greatly fragmented.

As a result, the 5G specifications call for a per-user download speed of 100Mbps and 50Mbps upload. This is close to what is achievable on LTE networks, although while these speeds are rare on LTE, they’re likely to be standard on 5G. 

We have seen a phone's speed hit nearly 1Gbps, but that was on site at Vodafone's UK HQ with a 5G-enabled mast at the other end of the car park in front of us. Many mmWave networks tend to give real-world speed readings upwards of 500Mbps while speed readings from the low-band wider coverage in the US (from T-Mobile and AT&T) seem to be coming in around the 200Mbps range. That's still better than we'd have expected.

One thing you will find is that the fastest speeds you currently get on 4G LTE are actually going to become the norm. The performance will improve across the board.

To test performance in fast-moving vehicles, Samsung carried out an experiment last summer by deploying a 5G network at the Korea International Circuit to prove that it was possible to have stable and seamless 5G mmWave performance when you are moving at high-speed. Coincidentally, Samsung believes that motor racing will be a use case for 5G networks in the future, with large amounts of data being transmitted around a circuit wirelessly, not counting the interactions from officials and fans.  

Of course, there will always be external factors that affect 5G networks, just as there are with 4G networks. These include how far you are from the cell, whether you’re walking or in a moving vehicle or train, the type of device you’re using, which network provider you’re with and more. 

Real-world 5G speeds already vary wildly and will continue to do so, even as the technology matures. As a guide:

  • A 4G connection will typically peak at around 20Mbps, although more consistently hits 10Mbps
  • On a 5G Minus/4G LTE Advanced network, speeds average around 60Mbps
  • Standard 5G (sub-6) is consistently delivering speeds of 100Mbps in real-world scenarios - some indications from the US show this at around 22Mbps. 
  • 5G Plus (mmWave) pushes this further, with real-world tests revealing average speeds between 300Mbps up to 1Gbps and some even hitting twice this maximum

How long does it take to download a 5GB movie?

To put this into perspective, here’s how long it would take to download a 5GB movie via the various types of networks at the top end of their average speeds.  (It’s also worth pointing out that the 5G speeds may feel faster due to the improved latency seen on 5G networks.

The 5G standards require a minimum latency of 4 ms in ideal conditions, down from LTE’s average of 20 ms.)

4G connection

1hr 08mins 

A 4G connection will typically peak at around 20Mbps, although more consistently hits 10Mbps. 

5G Minus/4G LTE Advanced connection

11mins 18secs 

On a 5G Minus/4G LTE Advanced network, speeds average around 60Mbps. 

Standard 5G connection

6mins 28secs

Standard 5G is consistently delivering speeds of 100Mbps in real-world scenarios.  

5G Plus connection

41secs

5G Plus pushes this further, with real-world tests revealing average speeds between 300Mbps up to 1Gbps and some even hitting twice this maximum.

5 apps to test your 5G speed with

Now that you know what speeds you could have won, and the speeds you’re more realistically likely to achieve, there is a number of 5G speed tests that can be used to check exactly what you’re getting. 

We’ve selected a range of speed tests that show the most basic of information, up to the more complex settings and frequencies. 

Speedtest by Ookla 

(Image credit: Ookla)

Available online, as well as via apps for Android, iOS, Apple TV, Google Chrome, macOS and Windows, Ookla’s Speedtest is an easy way to check your web speeds. 

It shows your average download and upload speeds as well as your ping and jitter readings, the number of connections, the server name and location and network details. 

These results can be stored, or shared. And the site also boasts a 5G Map, which you can find here.  

OpenSignal

(Image credit: OpenSignal)

OpenSignal is an independent analytics firm that specialises in measuring and monitoring mobile network speeds and experience and offers two apps. 

Its original OpenSignal app helps you “accurately measure the everyday experience you receive on your mobile network”. Instead of giving estimates, predictions or the maximum speeds possible over any given connection, the OpenSignal results are closer to what speeds you’ll likely experience when using your phone normally. The app additionally helps you find the strongest signal in your area, by following an onscreen arrow, shows coverage maps, for all UK networks, and reveals your recent data usage. 

Alternatively, its Meteor app breaks down what these speed readings mean in real-world scenarios, and while using real-world apps. The latter is particularly useful for telling you whether your connection is strong enough to stream an online video, or use a navigation app. Elsewhere, it helps you monitor where your fastest connections have been on a map. 

5G Comms Speed Test

(Image credit: 5G Comm)

Despite being called a broadband speed checker, 5G Comms’ speed test powered by NetMeter.uk can be used to test web speeds on data plans, as well as over wired and wireless Wi-Fi connections. The results reveal the connection’s median ping, download speeds and upload speeds. 

The 5G Comms version of the test is more user-friendly than NetMeter’s original, showing only the most relevant information. 

And if you want to learn more about your minimum and maximum ping times as well as how quickly your specific speeds could download an MP3, CD or DVD, you can use NetMeter.uk’s test.  

SpeedSmart 

(Image credit: SpeedSmart)

Available online and as an Android and iOS app, SpeedSmart offers the same ping, download and upload speed readings as others in this list but additionally features an ISP map that reveals the readings of both Wi-Fi and mobile data speeds across the globe. 

You can filter by connection type and view your test history.  

 Pedroc

(Image credit: Pedroc)

Built to reveal details about LTE connections, this speed test is the most complicated of the lot. It’s a theoretical throughput calculator that gives you highly specific readings based on your EARFCN, or band number. This stands for E-UTRA Absolute Radio Frequency Channel Number and is the unique frequency band being used by your particular connection, as assigned to your device by the network operator. 

To discover your EARFCN on iOS, run a field test by typing *3001#12345#* into your phone’s keypad and pressing dial.

On Android, you can download apps to reveal your field test information depending on your handset, or the Android version you are running. Certain handsets will also enter field test mode using a similar code to the one used by iPhone. On a Samsung, for example, you can use *#0011# to see this information. The process is more complicated on Android due to the vast number of variables with Android devices. You can go to Settings | About Phone to see your signal strength. 

Once you know your EARFCN, enter it in the Pedroc tool and it will automatically select the band and reveal the theoretical speeds achievable on that frequency network.

Speed test glossary 

TermDescription
PingThis refers to the reaction time of your connection and is often referred to as latency. Put simply, it describes how long it takes for you to get a response from the network after sending out a request. Some apps will also show a “jitter” value, which is how much the ping varied during the test. The higher the numbers, the higher the reaction times and variations, and this can be critical for playing games, for example. Ping and jitter are both measured in milliseconds (ms).
Download speedDownload speed describes how fast you can “pull” data from the server to your device and is measured in megabits per second (Mbps). It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to download the data for offline use on your device. Whenever you load an image on a website or open a link, as well as when you’re streaming films, your device is downloading packets of data from a central server to the relevant browser or app.
Upload speedUpload speed refers to the speed at which you can send data to others. During a video call, for instance, you’re “downloading” the data from the caller’s video – meaning you can see them – but you’re also sending, or uploading your own video images, so they can see you. Upload speed is also measured in megabits per second (Mbps).

The Complete Guide to 5G - free 23-page PDF download.

(Image credit: Future)

Victoria Woollaston is a freelance science and technology journalist with more than a decade’s experience writing for Wired UK, Alphr, Expert Reviews, TechRadar, Shortlist and the Sunday Times. She has a keen interest in next-generation technology and its potential to revolutionise how we live and work.