How to choose a 5G plan

This is the year that 5G goes from hype to reality. Commercial distribution of 5G (Fifth Generation) — the newest mobile broadband protocol destined to replace 4G LTE — promises exponentially faster download and upload speeds, reduced latency for speedy communication between wireless networks, and the ability to connect more devices simultaneously. The Big Four — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile — are busy building out their 5G networks for consumers and businesses.

The 5G revolution isn’t just about smartphones. It also will connect and facilitate driverless cars, drones, cloud gaming, augmented reality, virtual reality, and the Internet of Things, and eventually replace the Wi-Fi in your home and office. New infrastructure is needed for widespread adoption of 5G, and starting in 2018, limited introduction of the service has already begun in select locations worldwide.

Today, with 5G dotting the U.S. landscape, expect to see accelerated rollout of the technology from now on. Though it’s still early in the process, 5G has been set in motion with folks all over the globe eagerly awaiting the improvements it has to offer. If you’re all in on 5G right now, here’s what you need to know.

Sub-6 to mmWave

Not all 5G is the same: There are several variations of 5G, including low-band, mid-band, and high-band (aka millimeter wave or mmWave). These bands map to the radio wave segments of the electromagnetic spectrum. Carriers are promising speeds of between 1GBps and 10Gbps on their 5G networks, 10 times the maximum speed of the current 4G LTE. Here’s how the waves break down:

  • Sub-6 consists of mobile data with frequencies under 6Ghz, often called mid-band or low-band. Conversely, high-band, wide-band, ultra wide-band, millimeter wave, mmWave, and MWV reference data on frequencies over 24Ghz.
  • Low-band spectrum generally refers to the sub 1GHz spectrum, which, in the U.S., serves as the primary band for LTE. Low-band has a wide coverage area and penetrates walls, but peak data speeds top out at about 100Mbps.
  • Mid-band spectrum provides faster speeds up to 1Gbps with lower latency than low-band. But it does not penetrate buildings as well as low-band spectrum. Sprint owns most of the unused mid-band spectrum in the U.S. It uses Massive MIMO — which groups multiple antennas onto a single box, and at a single cell tower, to create multiple simultaneous beams to different users — to enhance wall penetration and coverage area on the mid-band. Sprint will also use beamforming — a signal processing technology that transmits and receives directional signals — to enhance 5G service.
  • High-band spectrum — aka mmWave — delivers high-performance, low-latency 5G with peak speeds up to 10Gbps, but it has a low coverage area with poor building penetration. The high-band spectrum concentrates on speed and relies on many small cells — low-power base stations that cover limited geographic areas that can combine with beamforming to enhance coverage.

Now that we have the 5G basics down, how do you get in on the action?

5G may not be widely available just yet, but it's getting there. Here's where you can find 5G in the U.S.
5G Map

How to determine 5G coverage in your area

Even if you own a smartphone that’s capable of delivering 5G, that won’t mean a thing if you live in a place where the technology is not available — and for now, that’s most places. Consumer mobile 5G is not widespread anywhere yet, and in the U.S., relatively few cities offer 5G access for customers with a 5G plan and compatible phone. Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T all have 5G tech deployed or in the works all over the country. The first thing to do is check the coverage in your region because the rollout of 5G is going to take time to reach beyond major cities and commercial centers. Here’s where to look if you want to find out whether 5G is available in your area.

Ookla 5G Map: This worldwide map gives you an overall view of where 5G services are planned, currently located, or soon to be deployed from whatever country you’re in. The interactive map tracks 5G rollouts in cities across the globe and is updated weekly from verified sources as well as Ookla data. It doesn’t offer a ton of detail, but gives you a broad overview.

Cellular Maps: Cellular Maps presents 5G locations in a gallery of wireless maps detailing coverage and service areas. Side-by-side comparisons and comprehensive 5G maps of specific locations help determine whether you can use 5G for your home or business.

WhistleOut: A series of maps representing 5G service areas for each of the Big Four carriers is presented in an interactive map that shows which cities have 5G access for customers with a 5G plan and compatible phone.

Which smartphone do you have?

LG v50 thinq 5g
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

With advances in mobile networks, the actual roadmap to 5G is largely available through your smartphone. But not just any smartphone — it has to be one that is compatible with 5G, which means it must have the antennas and chips necessary to communicate with the 5G cell towers. The jump from 4G to 5G brings new features, as well as the potential for major speed boosts.

So far, a handful of companies are manufacturing 5G-compatible phones, including Samsung, LG, Motorola, OnePlus, Huawei, Oppo, Xiaomi, Axon, and Nubia. There’s no question that Apple will make a 5G phone, but it does not have one yet. Among the best 5G phones you can buy today are the Samsung Note 10 Plus 5G ($1,300), Samsung Galaxy S10 5G ($1,300), and the LG V50 ThinQ 5G ($1,000), from Verizon and Sprint, the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G ($669) from Sprint, and the Moto Z4 ($400) from Amazon.

Major carrier 5G progress so far

AT&T: AT&T currently offers two types of 5G service: 5G+ uses the mmWave spectrum while another low-band network is available in 80 locations. AT&T has now made its mmWave 5G+ network available to everyone, with the release of Samsung’s Galaxy S20+ and Galaxy S20 Ultra phones, which can use the faster network. Until now, AT&T had isolated businesses in using the fast mmWave network and restricted consumers to its slower, larger 5G low-band network. This move signals that AT&T is now competing directly with Verizon and T-Mobile, which also have mmWave networks available to all customers.

AT&T customers who buy the new Galaxy phones can tap into the fast mmWave 5G+ networks in 35 cities where AT&T has rolled out mmWave. When that’s not available, they’ll fall back to AT&T’s low-band 5G network — 5GE — covering some 80 million people across 80 markets in the U.S..

Sprint: Sprint‘s True Mobile 5G offers very sparse 5G coverage right now in parts of Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, New York City, Phoenix, and Washington, D.C., covering about 20 million people. Sprint may soon merge with T-Mobile — the merger could be finalized in April 2020, if approved from California regulators — but the company is still moving ahead with its own 5G rollout meanwhile, supported by phones like the LG V50 ThinQ, HTC 5G Hub, Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, and OnePlus 7 Pro. The carrier will leverage its excess 2.5GHz spectrum to build its 5G network while adding 128-antenna Multiple-Input, Multiple-Output (MIMO) equipment to its existing cell towers to administer both 4G and 5G service. If you have a 5G phone, you can get 5G service near these towers; otherwise, your service reverts to 4G.

Verizon 5G node
Verizon 5G node Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Verizon: Verizon 5G plans are available in 34 cities including Atlanta, Detroit, Indianapolis, Providence, Washington, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Minneapolis, and Denver, with more on the way. Verizon’s 5G Ultra wide-band network (analogous to mmWave) uses 28GHz and 39GHz mmWave spectrum bands, which the company estimates has 40 times the bandwidth of its 4G LTE 700MHz network. Verizon will also deploy 5G technology on lower frequency bands including the 700MHz-2500MHz frequency range to cover wider areas.

The Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, the LG V50 ThinQ 5G, and the Motorola Z3 and Z4 + 5G Moto Mod phones currently work with Verizon’s 5G network. With the right phones, customers on Verizon’s Play More Unlimited, Do More Unlimited, or Get More Unlimited plans get free access to Verizon 5G for a limited time. Those on the Start Unlimited plan pay $10 per month in addition to the regular monthly rate. Verizon is also offering a home 5G service, which converts the 5G signal to Wi-Fi, so you can hook your laptop or smart home devices to Verizon’s 5G network. It’s currently available for residents in parts of Chicago, Houston, Sacramento, Los Angeles, and Indianapolis.

T-Mobile: T-Mobile has surged ahead of the Big Four with nationwide coverage in dozens of cities. T-Mobile’s 5G network covers more than 1 million square miles, reaching over 200 million people in more than 5,000 locations. Last month, the company announced the Samsung Galaxy S20 5G, Galaxy S20+ 5G, and Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G are interoperable with its low-, mid-, and high-band 5G networks. The S20+ 5G and S20 Ultra 5G can tap into millimeter wave (mmWave) 5G, while the Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ 5G and OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren do not support mmWave, but are compatible with T-Mobile’s nationwide 600MHz 5G.

Anticipating its merger with Sprint, T-Mobile intends to combine its core 5G layer with Sprint’s 2.5GHz mid-band spectrum to create a broad, deep network. The Samsung Galaxy phones will use all of T-Mobile’s 5G spectrum — low-band for breadth of coverage and high-band for hot-spot speeds. T-Mobile’s low-band nationwide 600MHz spectrum covers some 200 million people and more than 5,000 cities and towns. If and when the Sprint merger is completed, T-Mobile will supercharge its 5G network with 2.5GHz mid-band spectrum from Sprint across the U.S., and T-Mobile’s mmWave is already live in seven city centers. T-Mobile Connect — a prepaid 5G service option available for $15 per month — is also in the works for after the Sprint merger.

5G for the future

If you’re planning to replace your smartphone in 2020 or beyond, and you live in a large city or somewhere 5G has already been announced or implemented, consider buying one that is capable of connecting via 5G. These phones don’t come cheap, but they are more future-proof than even advanced mobile phones that only support up to 4G. It will take some time for 5G to blanket the landscape, so depending on where you live, you could probably wait until the next phone buying cycle to take advantage of it rolling out in your area. If you can afford it, buying a 5G-capable phone now can’t hurt, as it will also work with 4G LTE signals. One thing is for sure: 5G is on the march. Though it’s not everywhere yet, you can check the updated maps whenever you want to monitor its progress in your area.

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