US mobile carriers are continuing to roll out 5G, and Americans are buying more 5G phones even as they aren’t leaving their homes.
By Sascha Segan
America has spent a month in quarantine, but the 5G rollouts continue. T-Mobile leads our race to 5G this month after adding yet more low-band 5G cities, and it’s starting to turn Sprint’s mid-band spectrum to the advantage of T-Mobile customers in Philadelphia and New York City. The $699 OnePlus 8 became the most affordable current-generation 5G phone in the nation this month, and AT&T notched major coverage improvements for its low-band 5G network. AT&T says it now covers 120 million people, to T-Mobile’s 200+ million.
5G is reaching more people in the US this month, as more people take up 5G phones. Data provider M Science says the percentage of 5G devices among US phones sold has bumped up to 20 percent thanks to the Galaxy S20 line, although the S20 is selling many fewer units than the S10 and the S9 did at this stage of their launches.
It’s still hard to show a big advantage for low-band 5G over 4G. AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s slow, low-band 5G, with its narrow channels, keeps dragging down their speeds. This month, according to Ookla Speedtest Intelligence, AT&T averaged 143Mbps down and T-Mobile averaged 78Mbps down on their 5G networks. (Note: Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, PCMag.com’s parent company.) By comparison, Canadian carriers Bell and TELUS both average over 80Mbps on their 4G networks. The 5G systems AT&T and T-Mobile are delivering to most Americans are not giving an experience worthy of the name.
Verizon has great speeds, averaging over 800Mbps, but its coverage is lousy. While it says it has been steadily expanding coverage in its 34 cities and is on its way to 60 cities by the end of this year, its high-band millimeter-wave system still has only about 800-foot radii from its cell sites, and doesn’t penetrate walls. (Verizon won’t give us official population coverage numbers for its network, so we’ve stalled our estimate at about 10 million people.) Help may be on the way with better beam forming technology later this year.
5G is facing a bizarre new challenge, too: coronavirus-related conspiracy theories and vandalism. Conspiracy theories spread by Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have broken out into the real world, with vandals setting network sites on fire in the UK and Canada. (In Laval, Quebec, the site destroyed wasn’t even a 5G site.) In Salt Lake City, a nutball chained himself to the potential site of a 5G tower on the false claim that 5G is “the same frequencies as a microwave,” which is not correct; Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, not 5G, are the same frequencies as a microwave oven. I’ve even seen anti-5G-related graffiti in my New York City neighborhood.
I have an explainer, which I still can’t believe the world needs, on how 5G is not dangerous and does not cause coronavirus.
5G Expands Coverage, Gets Cheaper
It’s important to remember what 5G is and isn’t. 5G is just a radio encoding method; it isn’t a frequency, a speed, or an application. It can work and feel just like 4G, and at this point, it often does. AT&T and T-Mobile are expanding 5G on some very old frequencies. AT&T is using the oldest cellular airwaves, from 1983; T-Mobile is using old UHF TV channels in use since 1952. GCI launched the first 5G network in Alaska this month, also on those older frequencies. The low frequencies let them easily cover entire cities, as T-Mobile announced coverage of Columbus, Detroit, and St. Louis this month. But those older spectra don’t have the wide channels needed for gigabit speeds.
There’s some hope for better speeds on the horizon. As T-Mobile expands mid-band 5G coverage beyond its new Philadelphia network, we’ll see speeds rise; Sprint’s mid-band speeds have historically been around 200Mbps, which would more than double T-Mobile’s performance. The carrier nabbed some additional low-band 5G airwaves from investor Columbia Capital this month, too, which should help its speeds improve.
Prices for 5G service are starting to come down, and I think device prices will, too, over the next few months. This month, Spectrum and US Mobile both launched lower-cost services on Verizon’s 5G network, undercutting Verizon’s own prices. Metro now offers 5G coverage on T-Mobile’s low-band network for $50 per month.
While we aren’t getting the super-cheap 5G phones that China has right now, the $699 OnePlus 8 is $300 less than the base Galaxy S20, and there are lower-cost 5G phones planned for this summer-the Samsung Galaxy A51 5G and the TCL 10 5G -both of which I anticipate will cost around $500 in their AT&T and T-Mobile versions. Analysts at data provider M Science say that because of its millimeter-wave system, Verizon 5G phones will likely still cost more than other 5G phones for a while.
As always, we will keep tracking US 5G rollouts on our Race to 5G page.
Originally published at https://www.pcmag.com.