Don’t get me wrong, T-Mobile’s 5G switched back to 4G LTE at times too, but it happened much less frequently than when I tested Sprint or Verizon’s 5G network. That’s because 5G comes in various flavors. T-Mobile claims its 5G network covers 200 million Americans, and that wide coverage is due to the specific type of spectrum (aka radio frequency) it’s using: Low-band, specifically 600MHz. Similar to the spectrum used for 4G LTE, low-band frequencies cover large areas and penetrate buildings well. Network speeds are pretty fast too.
But other carriers are using different spectrum. Sprint, which claims to be able to cover 11 million people with its 5G network, uses mid-band frequencies that aren’t as wide-reaching as low-band, but they can still cover a good deal of ground (and penetrate most buildings and cars) while offering even faster speeds. I usually saw between 110 to 400 Mbps speeds when I tested Sprint’s mid-band 5G network in Dallas and New York.
AT&T and Verizon are—at the moment—deploying millimeter wave (mmWave) 5G service, which delivers significantly faster speeds. The mmWave tech has some critical flaws, like having almost zero building penetration, not to mention an effective signal range of only a city block or two. It requires clusters of 5G antennas, or nodes, in a small sector to be effective, which is why at the moment it’s utilized for high-traffic areas in cities, stadiums, and soon, airports. But wow are the speeds impressive; I jumped between 600 Mbps to 1.5 gigabits per second on Verizon’s mmWave network in Chicago.
All the major US carriers have subsequent plans to use a mixture of the aforementioned spectrum in their respective 5G rollouts. AT&T, for example, is expected to launch its low-band 5G network this month, and no, the carrier’s much-touted “5GE” service is not true 5G.
T-Mobile’s goal is to combine its low-band spectrum with Sprint’s mid-band tech if the merger between the two companies is approved. (The deal is currently pending litigation.) It would allow the carrier to have a robust 5G network that offers faster internet speeds in more areas around the country, with a touch of mmWave to serve high-traffic areas.
All of this is why, as you can see from my test, T-Mobile’s 5G speeds at the moment aren’t going to be all that different from what you can get today on 4G LTE. The new network does allow the carrier to say it has the “biggest 5G network.” Does it matter? No, because there are still a few hoops you need to jump through to access 5G. It’s just another reason why you should ignore 5G for now.
A Tale of Two Phones
I can’t complain about faster internet speeds; it’s what we all want, and T-Mobile’s new 5G network modestly delivers that (and it will gradually get faster too). Scrubbing back through the same trailer for the next Bond flick on 4G LTE, I had to wait 10 seconds or more for the video to rebuffer so I could continue watching it. It might sound like a minor grievance, but incremental improvements like this are what allowed for the creation and success of hundreds of apps in the past decade.
Streaming gets sped up, but downloads are faster too. It took 25 seconds to download Netflix’s Bird Box (around 690MB) over Verizon’s mmWave 5G network, a minute and 15 seconds on Sprint’s mid-band 5G network, and more than eight minutes over T-Mobile’s low-band connection. On T-Mobile’s 4G LTE network, after around eight minutes the download was only at 10 percent. (I lost my patience.)