After nearly a year of hype, actual 5G service is now only days away. Verizon is launching commercial offerings in four cities next week — but the same carrier is touting an eleventh-hour breakthrough in 4G. Working with Qualcomm and Nokia in a live New York commercial environment, Verizon achieved a peak data speed of 1.45Gbps using LTE Advanced technology.
To put that in some perspective, Verizon’s 5G service is promising customers peak data speeds of 1Gbps — 10 to 100 times faster than typical cellular speeds today — with more typical performance in the 300Mbps range. So when Verizon says that (certain) 4G phones might outperform its 5G network, by a factor of nearly 50 percent, that’s a sure-fire recipe for customer confusion.
Understanding this development requires a little knowledge about the current state of 4G and 5G modem development. Chipmaker Qualcomm is working on Snapdragon X50 series modems for 5G devices, but it’s also been developing the X24 modem as a “4.9G” alternative — a very late-stage way to squeeze a few more drops of performance out of 4G networks ahead of the 5G transition.
While 5G rolls out across the world, some devices will use X50 modems, and some will use X24s. Motorola’s 5G Moto Mod will actually include both. The reason: Chipmakers and carriers expect that 5G devices will simultaneously maintain connections to 4G and 5G networks, falling back to 4G whenever 5G towers are unavailable.
It would theoretically be easiest for consumers if the transition had crisp end and beginning points for 4G and 5G — say, “4G ranged from 5Mbps to 1Gbps, and 5G ranged from 1Gbps to 100Gbps,” but as Verizon’s announcement makes clear, that’s not going to happen. The 3G to 4G transition similarly had some overlap between the upper speeds 3G users could expect and the lower speeds 4G users might see. (Regrettably, some 4G users have continued to be stuck at or near those low speeds for the past decade, but that’s another discussion.)
Late 4G improvements like this are actually going to be good news for consumers, too. They’ll bring better fallback speeds to 5G users and faster performance for 4G holdouts. Verizon noted that the technology that enabled the record speed was six-channel carrier aggregation, combining two Verizon-licensed radio frequencies with four channels of so-called “shared spectrum” to create enough bandwidth for 1.45Gbps worth of 4G/LTE data. The same carrier aggregation technology will be used in 5G, too, to enable even faster speeds.
It also used 4×4 MIMO — four antennas in the device, four in the cell tower — and a bandwidth-maximizing technology known as 256 QAM to pack the spectrum with data. Verizon notes that it currently has these technologies installed in over 1,110 markets across the United States.
Qualcomm has said that the Snapdragon X24 is capable of delivering up to 2Gbps speeds over LTE, which means that there’s still a little room left to hit future 4G records. Meanwhile, Verizon and other carriers will now need to more heavily market some of 5G’s other distinctive advantages over 4G, including ultra-low latency and added security, if it wants to convince customers to form the first wave of 5G early adopters.