Over the last few months, the promised next generation of mobile broadband—5G—has started to shed its vaporware status.
That doesn’t mean that everyone reading this can get crazy-fast internet. But today, all four nationwide wireless carriers offer consumer 5G services, complete with coverage maps so you can see if their network will work for you.
But AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon have rolled out the next wave of internet in a different way. The key difference among them: which slices of the layer cake of 5G frequencies they serve, each with their own appeal and flaws.
At the top of this cake—the smallest portion made with the most expensive ingredients and with pastry-chef expertise—you have millimeter-wave frequencies. They can deliver the stuff of 5G hype, with speeds over a gigabit per second and ultra-responsive sub-10-millisecond latency, but they can only reach maybe a thousand feet. If you want to stream 4K virtual reality, this is what you’ll want—if you’re in one of the few places in America with “mm-wave” 5G service.
Below that you have what we’ll call the Whole Foods section of the cake: mid-band 5G, which reaches much farther than millimeter-wave but isn’t as fast and suffers from a lack of available spectrum among U.S. carriers. This could make your smartphone’s data connection a whole lot more powerful, but it’s unclear if carriers can scale it enough.
At the bottom there’s the sheet cake of 5G, deployed on the same frequencies of much of today’s 4G, which can offer impressive coverage but can’t deliver much more speed. This is the type of 5G almost all of us can count on experiencing—even if it’s not necessarily a bandwidth breakthrough.
AT&T: fast for business, slow for the rest of us
AT&T began selling 5G service in December 2018, but that fast-but-scarce millimeter-wave network remains off-limits to consumers—this Dallas-based carrier has reserved the service in “select areas” of 21 cities for businesses.
A year later, everybody else is about to get a crack at AT&T’s other, slower version of 5G, in markets beginning with Indianapolis; Pittsburgh; Providence, R.I.; Rochester, N.Y.; and San Diego. AT&T’s coverage map shows the signal reaching far into the suburbs.
AT&T is calling this slower upcoming service just “5G,” as opposed to the “5G+” moniker it’s now lent to its super-fast millimeter-wave product. These are not to be confused with the “5G E” label it’s slapped on its newest LTE technology, which is neither actual 5G nor faster than other carriers’ LTE.
Subscribers to AT&T’s $65 per month Unlimited Starter plan will have to switch to its $75 Unlimited Extra or $85 Unlimited Elite plans to use its 5G.
Sprint: just like 4G, but faster (theoretically)
Sprint provides 5G connectivity over the spectrum it currently uses for LTE. That enabled it to launch this service in May over relatively large parts of Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, and Kansas City.
The trade-off comes in speed: In July, Ookla’s Speedtest Intelligence service found Sprint’s 5G downloads averaged 236 megabits per second (Mbps), versus 870 for Verizon’s much-scarcer mm-wave 5G. My results with a loaner hotspot in D.C. haven’t been as impressive; sometimes, Sprint’s 5G has been slower than the 40 to 50 Mbps downloads of its 4G.
And after an expansion to parts of Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, and Washington, D.C., Sprint hasn’t added new cities since late August. Analyst Jeff Moore of Wave7 Research notes that Sprint has pulled back on 5G advertising, with billboards and store signage gone from Kansas City. Sprint is also planning to merge with T-Mobile—should it prevail against state lawsuits seeking to stop the transaction—which would leave T-Mobile to take over this work.
Sprint’s Unlimited Basic, $60 a month, doesn’t include 5G while its $70 Unlimited Plus and $80 Unlimited Premium do.
T-Mobile: 20% faster than 4G, for millions
T-Mobile is another carrier that’s launched 5G twice—except nobody could be forgiven for missing its tepid introduction earlier this year of millimeter-wave 5G service, supported by a single phone and available only in “select outdoor locations” in six cities.
In December, the carrier announced a much more robust form of 5G that it says already reaches “more than 200 million people” (a little under a third of the country’s population). But that coverage will cost you in speed, with T-Mobile advising reviewers that this new network will only run about 20% faster than its 4G.
Early reviews have confirmed that. Android Central’s Andrew Martonik, for example, found in tests that downloads and uploads on T-Mobile 5G “were typically about 25% higher than T-Mobile 4G speeds.” Sascha Segan wrote at PCMag: “While I’m thinking of this form of 5G as maybe 4.9G, 4.9G is better than what you’re getting now.”
All of T-Mobile’s plans include 5G—even prepaid, which will matter more when 5G phones stop selling for $900 and up.
Verizon: “5G done right,” for almost nobody
Verizon has bet on millimeter-wave 5G—”5G done right” is its tagline—as essential to delivering a meaningful difference.
“That’s where you get the transformation,” chief product development officer Nicola Palmer said in a presentation at a Qualcomm conference in Maui this month. “You don’t get it when you don’t have the bandwidth.”
But the detailed coverage maps Verizon finally posted for its 18 launch cities show that this “5G done right” is mostly confined to individual blocks.
My 5G connectivity on the ground in D.C. with a loaner hotspot has been iffier than Verizon’s map suggests, with the device often losing 5G in the middle of a block shown as offering complete 5G coverage. When that hotspot has found Verizon’s millimeter-wave signal, download speeds have exceeded 300 Mbps, but not topped 400 Mbps.
(After this story was posted, Verizon said “technical limitations” with the hotspot hold back the speed available via WiFi to nearby devices.)
At that Qualcomm event, Palmer said Verizon is “building more fiber miles per month than anybody else.” But even with an extraordinary buildout of 5G cell sites, Verizon recognizes that its millimeter-wave spectrum won’t cut it countrywide.
So the company will also offer slower low-band 5G on some of the same frequencies it uses for LTE today, with considerably slower performance that Verizon will presumably not advertise as “5G done half-right.”
Verizon’s $70 Start Unlimited doesn’t include 5G, unlike its other three unlimited plans: Play More Unlimited, $80; Do More Unlimited, also $80; and Get More Unlimited, $90.
(Disclosure: I also write for Yahoo Finance, one of Verizon’s media properties.)