Not even a hyper-fast 5G wireless connection will let you download detailed maps of the four nationwide carriers’ 5G coverage—because three of them have yet to publish that cellular cartography.
That’s not because the carriers hesitate to overwhelm us with the awesomeness of their 5G coverage. Instead, their 5G coverage maps are mostly missing in action because there isn’t much coverage to map out.
“I think the lack of 5G coverage maps is tantamount to a confession that 5G coverage is embarrassingly small,” analyst Jeffrey Moore of Wave7 Research summed up in an email. He pointed to the severe reception limits of the millimeter-wave frequencies carrying 5G service from AT&T and Verizon—both of which provide the fewest specifics on where you can use their 5G service.
Those two carriers have even asked the Federal Communications Commission to hold off on requiring them to submit 5G coverage data as the FCC belatedly moves to upgrade its broadband-availability database.
“At some point, Verizon and AT&T will have to admit that mid-band spectrum is needed to have substantial 5G coverage,” Moore said. “Once they make that leap–and doing so is complicated–then they will be able to post 5G maps.”
For now, here’s how much detail you can get from each of the four carriers about this long-awaited, immensely hyped advance in wireless connectivity.
This carrier offers the fewest specifics about its 5G coverage, saying only that it’s available “in select areas” of Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and San Jose, Calif.; Jacksonville and Orlando, Fla.; Atlanta; Indianapolis; Louisville; New Orleans; Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C.; Las Vegas; New York City; Oklahoma City; Nashville; and Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Waco, Tex.
Spokeswoman Lindsay Lougee didn’t provide a timetable for posting more detailed maps, saying in an email, “As we continue to expand availability we’ll share more information.”
At least consumers don’t have to worry about buying a 5G phone from this carrier and finding out that it works at 4G speed in most places: the carrier is only selling Samsung’s Galaxy S10 5G to business customers.
The one carrier that’s providing 5G over only mid-band frequencies—Sprint’s using the same 2.5 GHz spectrum on which its 4G LTE rides—also provides actual coverage maps that let you inspect its potential on a block-by-block level. In Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, and Washington, D.C., you can zoom into its regular coverage map and see 5G in orange, overlaid on the yellow that represents Sprint’s 4G reach.
My own informal testing with a loaned Sprint hotspot suggests this map paints a conservative picture of Sprint’s 5G coverage. For example, although it indicates no signal on Georgetown University’s D.C. campus, that HTC device showed a full-strength 5G signal on the fourth floor of its business-school building.
T-Mobile’s 5G coverage maps look pretty, but they don’t convey that much detail about the millimeter-wave service available to users of Samsung’s Galaxy S10 5G phone in Atlanta, Cleveland, Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and New York. That’s because they’re pictures, not actual maps: you can’t zoom into or search these overhead views of those cities, on which only major streets carry labels. So if you don’t know individual intersections from their shapes alone, the magenta highlights on these visuals may not offer much advice.
But T-Mobile is also deploying 5G on lower frequencies that will reach further—once phones arrive that support those bands. Consider that yet another reason to hold off on buying a 5G phone, as if T-Mo’s $1,100 price for the S10 5G wasn’t enough of a deterrent.
A FAQ page says the carrier offers 5G service in Atlanta; Boise; Chicago; Denver; Detroit; Indianapolis; Minneapolis and St. Paul; New York; Panama City, Fla.; Phoenix; Providence; and Washington, D.C. But then it only lists neighborhoods in each city. Around the nation’s capital, for example, Verizon says its 5G signal is “in parts of” 20 areas across the District and Arlington, Va.
Focus more on “in parts of” than the list of neighborhoods, which otherwise might suggest somebody who lives in Columbia Heights and works two miles south in Foggy Bottom would have continuous 5G coverage.Real-world tests like PCMag’s have painted a much patchier picture.
(Disclosure: I also write for Yahoo Finance, one of Verizon’s media properties.)
When it comes to 4G coverage, we don’t have to take the carriers’ word for it. Outside firms conduct their own drive testing and collect crowdsourced data to provide independent assessments of each carrier’s reach.
But it’s too soon for them to do the same job for 5G. Opensignal, a leading source of crowdsourced network-performance data, isn’t ready to predict when it will begin publishing 5G data. There just aren’t enough 5G phones in customers’ hands.
RootMetrics, which relies more on its own automated drive testing, posted a first-look assessment of 5G coverage in Atlanta, Chicago, and Dallas on Oct. 16 that found impressive speeds that were rarely available—as in, its phones only hit an AT&T 5G signal in Dallas in 2.6% of tests; T-Mobile 5G only surfaced in 3.1% of tests in Atlanta and 13% in Dallas; and Verizon 5G appeared in 7.1% of tests in Chicago. Sprint’s 5G was the one outlier, hitting 24.9% availability in Dallas, 32.2% in Chicago, and all of 51.4% in Atlanta.
If that doesn’t sound like a revolutionary advance in mobile broadband—well, it shouldn’t. In the real world, 5G is not that, not yet.