5G has come to New York City, though you’ll need to spend a pretty penny and be on T-Mobile to access it. The “un-carrier’s” 5G network launched in select areas of six U.S. cities today — including the Big Apple — but the only phone to support the fledgling network is the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G. It’s on sale now from T-Mobile for $1,300.
I took the phone for a spin to see what faster speeds mean when you’re bustling about in the streets of New York. But first, what on earth is 5G?
5G and spectrum
5G is the fifth-generation of mobile network technology, following 4G, 3G, and 2G. It brings super-fast connectivity speeds, and ultra-low latency, which is the measure of the delay between data transfer speeds.
At present, average 4G LTE download speeds around the United States range between 15 megabits per second (Mbps) and 50Mbps. 5G will bring average speeds to a minimum of 50Mbps, but it has the potential to go well past 1 gigabit per second (1Gbps) at its peak. Similarly, the average latency is around 40 to 60 milliseconds on 4G, but 5G aims to bring it under 10.
What does that mean? 5G has the potential to usher in a new wave of connectivity, which could dramatically change the current tech landscape. Not only will you be able to download a 4K movie in a matter of seconds, but 5G will allow for real-time virtual or augmented-reality gaming, driverless cars that can speak with one another in real time, smarter cities, and a whole lot more.
There are different types of spectrum at play with 5G. There’s high-band, or millimeter wave (mmWave), which is what Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile are utilizing at the moment. The benefit is super-fast speeds and low latency, but poor range (think a block and a half), and it has difficulty penetrating buildings. Next there’s mid-band, which Sprint is using, and it delivers fast speeds with broader range (though speeds aren’t as fast as mmWave). Finally, there’s low-band, which is the slowest of the three but should still offer speedier results over 4G LTE; it can cover a much larger area, though.
T-Mobile’s 5G speeds in New York
How fast is T-Mobile’s 5G mmWave? Not as fast as Verizon’s, but it’s a good deal better than T-Mobile’s LTE network in the same area. I spent most of my time near Tompkins Square Park in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and the first 5G node I hit delivered 411Mbps download speeds (according to Ookla’s Speedtest app). A Galaxy S10 Plus with a T-Mobile SIM on 4G LTE hit 137Mbps.
T-Mobile said it’s expecting speeds around 450Mbps at the moment, but that could increase as it continues to develop the network. When I first went to Chicago to test the Moto Z3 and the 5G Moto Mod on Verizon’s newly-launched 5G network, I didn’t see speeds go much higher than 624Mbps. I came back a month later to test it on the Galaxy S10 5G, and it went past 1Gbps. The best I saw today was 582Mbps on T-Mobile’s network, which is a good start.
Consistency remains the big problem, for both T-Mobile and Verizon. First you need to make sure you stand in the right area of the 5G node — standing directly under it or being too close will result in poor speeds. Across the street is a better position to be in, but 5G speeds still varied. I ran a second speed test after I hit 411Mbps without changing spots, and the phone dipped to 200Mbps for no specific reason.
The S10 5G has a measure in place that will kick you back from 5G to 4G LTE if the phone is getting too hot.
Remember that range is poor with mmWave. I was able to maintain a 5G connection for a block and a half, and then the Galaxy S10 5G switched to 4G LTE. Carriers will eventually be deploying multiple nodes and repeaters in clusters so it can create a larger 5G area, but we’re not close to seeing this in action. This makes it difficult to recommend buying a 5G phone right now, not just because 5G phones are far and few between and expensive, but also because coverage is so sporadic and limited. Thankfully, even at the very edge of the node’s range, the phone hit 404Mbps. It’s good to know speeds are maintained throughout the range of the node, even if it’s a small radius.
But turn a corner and lose line of sight, or enter a building on the same block as the node, and you’ll drop the 5G connection. That’s one of the other flaws of mmWave: Poor building penetration. It’s why 4G LTE is very much a part of the 5G rollout, as carriers will be using it as a fallback for the foreseeable future.
The most frustrating part about using the S10 5G on T-Mobile’s 5G network is how it doesn’t play well with heat. Yes, not the range or the speeds, but heat. It was 91 degrees Fahrenheit in New York City today (and humid), and that impacts the phone. The S10 5G has a measure in place that will kick you back from 5G to 4G LTE if the phone is getting too hot, so I frequently had to wait for it to cool down so I could start a test. The device itself didn’t feel that hot, however.
Picture this: You’re walking down the street (with a 5G node) in the summer. It’s sunny — so you have the screen on max brightness — and you’re downloading a Netflix movie while texting someone else on the phone. I fully expect the phone will kick you down to 4G LTE relatively quickly. That’s not good — at all. I didn’t see this issue in Chicago in April or May, because it wasn’t as hot as it is in New York right now.
Heat issues aside, what does actually using a 5G phone feel like? Not much different if you’re just swiping around and opening apps. It’s when you’re downloading content that things start to change for the better. I downloaded PUBG: Mobile on the Samsung Galaxy Store (Google’s Play Store doesn’t support 5G speeds yet), and the S10 5G took 1 minute and 12 seconds to download the 2GB file. That’s not nearly as impressive as the 23 seconds it took to download the same game on the S10 5G on Verizon’s 5G network. A later comparison on 4G LTE confirmed 5G is still better, however. The S10 Plus on T-Mobile took 2 minutes and 10 seconds to download the same game.
At a different node, I hit 415Mbps on the S10 5G, and 153Mbps on the LTE S10 Plus. Downloading the same game took 1 minute and 23 seconds on the former phone, and a whopping 3 minutes and 26 seconds on the LTE phone. Point being: 5G is successfully delivering better results.
The company’s key plan to bring 5G to the masses relies on deploying low-band spectrum (600MHz) around the U.S.
I also decided to try a quick comparison with AT&T’s 5GE network on an iPhone XR. It’s not a real 5G network, but a marketing gimmick, though it does offer improved 4G LTE speeds (you need new hardware for 5G). The iPhone XR reached 115Mbps, which is similar to the LTE speeds on T-Mobile’s network, but doesn’t come close to true 5G.
Just like with Verizon’s 5G service, you’ll see the cellular logo in the status bar of the Galaxy S10 5G flickering between 5G and 4G LTE. That’s because to show the 5G symbol, the respective 5G phone needs to access data. When the phone is sitting idly on the home screen, it will show the 4G LTE logo, even if you’re in a 5G-supported area. Don’t worry, it will quickly show the 5G logo as soon as you make a data request, such as if you open and refresh the Instagram app.
I’m also only talking about download speeds here because none of the carriers have flipped the switch to improve upload speeds or latency. Those upgrades will come in time, but at the moment, you’re only going to see the 4G LTE version of uploads and latency.
Today’s 5G launch on T-Mobile isn’t the big one. The company’s key plan to bring 5G to the masses relies on deploying low-band spectrum (600MHz) around the U.S., and that rollout is slated to kick off toward the end of 2019, when devices supporting 5G 600MHz will also be available.
This plan also hinges on the merger with Sprint to be approved. If it goes through, “the New T-Mobile” will be able to access Sprint’s mid-band spectrum; that way, the new carrier would have a more robust 5G network in the U.S. that employs low-, mid-, and high-band in a shorter amount of time over the competition.
What makes T-Mobile unique over Verizon with its 5G launch is that it’s not raising prices. If you want access to 5G and bought the Galaxy S10 5G, all you need at the minimum is the $70 unlimited plan for a single line. Verizon is charging $10 per month on top of its unlimited plans (though it is waiving it in the first three months for select devices). That being said, it’s unclear whether T-Mobile will raise prices down the road — after all, it initially promised prices will be lowered if the merger goes through, but now says prices will remain the same.
If you’re in New York City, Atlanta, Cleveland, Dallas, Las Vegas, or Los Angeles and are considering a 5G phone, check out T-Mobile’s coverage map to see if you’re in a supported area.
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