Are 5G Networks Meeting Consumers’ Expectations?

Key messages

  • In-market 5G performance varies widely. Reviewing the top 10% and worst 10% of Ookla® Speedtest Intelligence® samples reveals significant variance in the consumer experience on today’s 5G networks, with 5G speeds peaking at over 1 Gbps for the top 10% of users in the U.A.E on average, but falling to below 20 Mbps for the lower 10% in Norway, the U.S., Japan, Germany, and Spain.
  • Median 5G performance is declining in many early launch 5G markets. While understandable as 5G adoption grows and users in more remote locations access 5G, declining median download speeds also point to investment and deployment challenges in some markets. At the same time, many of these markets are facing economic headwinds, placing more emphasis than ever on cost control. As a result, operators must carefully balance network investment priorities.
  • 5G Net Promoter Scores (NPS) significantly higher than 4G LTE in most markets, but waning. With the exception of Sweden and Qatar, all the early launch 5G markets in our analysis saw 5G NPS fall year-over-year. Operators’ 5G NPS still trade at a premium compared to 4G, and while performance is just one part of the equation, operators should take care to build on the positive sentiment that 5G has brought to date.

Despite impressive headline speeds, 5G performance varies a lot

Median 5G performance allows us to gauge the midpoint of user experience on 5G networks, however it doesn’t paint the full picture. While headline 5G speeds impress, Speedtest Intelligence data lays bare the ups and downs of 5G performance for consumers, even in early launch, advanced 5G markets. We recently looked at 5G network performance over high frequency (mmW) bands, painting a view of the true potential of 5G networks. However, if we look at performance on today’s 5G networks, looking beyond the median at the range of performance between users in the top 10% and those in the lower 10%, Speedtest Intelligence data reveals huge variance in the performance users experience.

The U.A.E. was the fastest 5G market in our analysis, based on median download performance of 545.53 Mbps in December 2022, followed by South Korea and Qatar. However, the top 10% of users in the U.A.E. recorded speeds of at least 1,266.49 Mbps on average, while the lowest 10% of users experienced speeds of 127.52 Mbps or slower on average. At the other end of the scale, Spain recorded a median 5G speed of 94.14 Mbps, but also demonstrated wide variance between the top 10% of samples at 537.95 Mbps or faster and the lowest 10% with 10.67 Mbps or less.

Based on many of the marketing messages around 5G, consumers are led to expect a big bang change in performance. However, with 5G operating over a greater range of spectrum bands than previous generations, including high frequency spectrum which has relatively poorer propagation, it’s understandable that 5G performance will vary more than previous generations of mobile network technology.

5G markets set to face performance challenges during 2023

While globally 5G speeds have remained stable, for many of the markets in our analysis, median 5G download speeds have fallen over the past year. The U.S. was the main outlier, recording the strongest uplift in 5G performance as T-Mobile continued to drive home its performance advantage in the market, while Verizon’s performance improved early in 2022 through its deployment of 5G in C-band spectrum. This trend is likely to continue in 2023 in the U.S., as more C-band spectrum is made available. However, the picture remains concerning for a number of other 5G markets, particularly those where median 5G speeds are at the lower end of the spectrum.

In some markets, 5G was initially priced at a premium to 4G, with operators focused on driving incremental returns on the new network technology. However, operators have been increasingly opening up 5G access by removing incremental costs for consumers and adding prepaid plans too. As 5G adoption scales, it places more strain on the new networks. The challenge for many of these markets is that network performance is likely to degrade further unless network densification picks up.

For network operators, this investment imperative is occuring amidst macroeconomic headwinds, which are driving up operating costs and putting pressure on consumer and enterprise spend. In addition, there remain challenges in deploying additional 5G cell sites in dense urban areas where demand is strongest, while in some markets EMF limits and other regulations can limit the deployment of high-capacity 5G sites.

Degrading 5G performance impacts consumer sentiment

Net Promoter Score (NPS) from Speedtest Intelligence paints a largely positive picture of current 5G networks. NPS is a key performance indicator of customer experience, categorizing users into Detractors (score 0-6), Passives (score 7-8), and Promoters (score 9-10), with the NPS representing the percentage of Promoters minus the percent of Detractors, displayed in the range from -100 to 100. Across the markets we analyzed, 5G users on average rated their network operator with NPS scores that were universally higher than those for 4G LTE users. However, consumer sentiment for users on 5G networks is beginning to shift, with NPS scores falling, coinciding with lower median 5G performance in many of the markets we analyzed.

Declining performance levels will be a factor driving NPS down for some 5G users. It’s also important to remember that as 5G scales in many of these early launch markets, the profile of 5G users is also changing from predominantly urban-based users, to more of a mix of urban, suburban, and rural users, which brings additional coverage and performance challenges for network operators. We plan to examine the relationship between 5G performance and spectrum in an up-coming content piece. Please get in touch if you’d like to learn more about Speedtest Intelligence data.

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article/press release are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the approved policy or position of the GSMA or its subsidiaries.

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