There’s a new kind of 5G in America, and AT&T is the first to have it. This month AT&T activated dynamic spectrum sharing, which flips chunks of 4G channels over to 5G when they aren’t being used by 4G phones. This technology, which Verizon also intends to use, probably won’t show much consumer benefit initially, but it will help more customers take advantage of later 5G features, like lower latency and fewer dropped connections because of congestion.
T-Mobile, though, squeaks into the lead in our Race to 5G this month because it combines broad coverage with lots of 5G phone options. T-Mobile now offers 5G phones at $600, $700, $800, $900, $1,000, $1,200, $1,300, and $1,400. That’s really comprehensive, at least for the higher end of the market. Now T-Mobile needs to follow up with a 5G hotspot solution that can bring its broad 5G network into homes, like the company promised it would do as part of its merger with Sprint.
Both AT&T and T-Mobile have hit our maximum point scores for 5G coverage, with AT&T’s network now covering 179 million people, but its 5G speeds are disappointing. Verizon’s 5G speeds absolutely rule, with median speeds now over a gigabit, but it still covers a tiny fraction of the population. The problem the US is struggling with here is that because the FCC didn’t auction dedicated mid-band spectrum for 5G, our networks are divided between slow-but-broad low-band and fast-but-tiny high-band.
Verizon expanded coverage around Detroit as part of its home 5G rollout
Verizon may have a partial solution in its new partnerships with Pivotal Commware and other companies creating wireless repeaters to stretch high-band coverage, but we haven’t seen those in the wild yet. The repeaters will be key to further expanding Verizon’s in-home 5G service, which is currently offered in six cities; the carrier added Detroit this month.
That leaves T-Mobile with the only mid-band network that can combine fast speeds and decent coverage. T-Mobile is quietly expanding its mid-band 2.5GHz 5G network, which is officially only in Philadelphia and New York so far. As part of that expansion, Fierce Wireless reports that T-Mobile shut down Sprint’s older 5G network, affecting about 75,000 Sprint customers; it’s offering massive discounts on leased Samsung Galaxy S20 phones to get those customers to switch to devices compatible with the new network.
Because everyone now understands that we need more mid-band 5G, there’s a lot of jockeying going on in terms of making various airwaves available. Verizon, for instance, is trying to make the new 6GHz “Wi-Fi 6E” band more compatible with 5G by asking the FCC to allow higher-power access points. The really big prize will be a swathe of 280MHz of “C-band” spectrum around 3.7GHz, which will go up for auction on December 8 and become the basis of mid-band networks launching later in 2021.
5G phones are also slowly getting less expensive in the US, although they’re still more expensive here than in Asia. The Samsung Galaxy S71 5G launched on AT&T and T-Mobile for $600, which is a step down from the $699 OnePlus 8; we’ll have a review of it soon. We’re still waiting for those sub-$500 5G phones that TCL promised us.
Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 690 will make 5G phones cheaper, but maybe not in the US
I’m concerned that Verizon will be left out of the move toward cheaper 5G phones, though, because of that high-band network. Qualcomm this month introduced the Snapdragon 690, its first midrange 5G phone chipset, but left out Verizon’s high-band technology—it looks like it’s just too expensive. The company says high-band 5G will get less expensive, but I’m still worried.
June brought the first 5G laptop launch in the US, with the Lenovo 5G Flex. The 5G Flex only works on Verizon’s network for now. 5G laptops could be a great selling point for Verizon’s super-fast network; you don’t often need gigabit speed on your phone, but you do when you’re syncing 4GB videos to OneDrive. Until Verizon starts selling those repeaters, though, its network functions primarily outdoors. The good news is, the weather is pretty nice right now, and COVID-19 concerns have suggested that working outside might be pretty healthy for the next year.
The Lenovo 5G Flex
5G Comes to Canada
North of our border, we saw a big 5G launch this month. Bell and Telus, jointly, launched a 5G network in five cities; Rogers already had one up, so that means all three major Canadian carriers now have some form of 5G.
All three carriers are putting their 5G on unused 4G channels. In the case of Bell and Telus, it’s the same frequency that Freedom Mobile, a smaller carrier, uses for 4G. So performance isn’t going to be radically different for 4G; it’ll mostly be like adding an extra 4G channel. (That said, 4G performance in Canada is really, really good—in big cities, it’s far better than in the US.)
Bell told us that as 5G is the system of the future, it makes more sense to turn on new channels with the new technology going forward. That said, we’re probably not going to see radical 5G speeds in Canada until the CRTC auctions off dedicated 3.5GHz spectrum for 5G in mid-2021.
Fastest Mobile Networks Begins Now
But you know what, we’re not going to really know any of this without testing. So we’re going to test. For the past 10 years, we’ve tested 3G and 4G networks for our Fastest Mobile Networks project. This year, we’re going to head out to 20+ cities for the first Fastest Mobile Networks 5G testing, using Galaxy S20 series devices on all three carriers.
We chose Galaxy S20 devices because they’re the most popular 5G phones in the nation, and on AT&T and T-Mobile, they’re the only phones right now that can handle the entire “layer cake” of 5G signals—low, medium, and high bands. Galaxy S20 devices can cope with all of the latest 5G technologies, including DSS, to show the true picture of the carriers’ 5G networks. They’re the finest 5G phones available in the US.
Our Fastest Mobile Networks testing this year will be COVID-19-aware. Rather than having drivers take long road trips through America, staying in hotels along the way, we’re having local drivers test their home cities and ship the test equipment along to the next city via FedEx. This will get us the data we need for a true assessment of 4G and 5G in America without exposing our testers to potentially dangerous public accommodations.
Our full Fastest Mobile Networks report will come out at the end of August, and we’ll have a Fastest Mobile Networks Canada report in October. As always, keep an eye on 5G in the US on our Race to 5G page.