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We’re hitting the halfway mark in the Race to 5G, and it’s not going the way I expected when I started this project a year ago. I expected a slow crawl of super-fast networks painstakingly working to cover the country over years. Instead, we’ve seen vast reach for low-band networks that are barely faster than 4G. 

As a result, T-Mobile is in the lead without scoring a single point for speed. The carrier’s broad low-band 5G network blankets the nation, and it’s now offering four Samsung phones and a OnePlus device to hit its 5G airwaves. But T-Mobile’s low-band network has an average download speed of a mere 52Mbps. The carrier also has a high-band network in seven cities with an average download speed of 416Mbps, but so few people are using it that it hardly factors into our results.

The new Galaxy S20 phones might shake up our ratings as they make their way into consumers’ hands. The Galaxy S20, S20+, and S20 Ultra are hitting shelves March 6, and the S20+ and S20 Ultra are the first phones that can handle both high-band and low-band on AT&T and T-Mobile. They’re also likely to be the first best-selling 5G phones in the US. As S20 Ultra phones hit the streets in high-band cities, we might see T-Mobile’s effective speeds rise.

T-Mobile did speed up its network a bit this month with a software update to its OnePlus phones that makes low-band 5G faster, but that update hasn’t reached Samsung phones yet.  

This Galaxy S20 Ultra is making great strides on Verizon’s 5G network

AT&T announced that it’s boosting its own low-band network to cover 80 million people, helping put it in second place. AT&T appears to be doing a better job mixing low-band and high-band coverage to deliver both some sort of 5G experience across broad areas with high-speed coverage at limited in-city locations. With the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra and S20+, AT&T now has its first consumer phones able to access its whole network, and we’re going out this week to see how they combine the systems.

AT&T’s new 5G areas are surprisingly outlying—places like Lincoln County, MT and Sussex County, NJ—but there might be a reason for this. In central cities, AT&T often uses a grab bag of 4G spectrum to achieve speeds faster than it can currently get with its extremely narrow, low-band 5G channels. I found that low-band 5G doesn’t offer much improvement in New York City, but in outlying areas, the situation may be different. We’ll have to find out when we go on our Fastest Mobile Networks drive tests this May.

Verizon has by far the fastest 5G network, but it’s being held back by how painfully difficult it is to extend coverage on an all-high-band network. Verizon won’t give us population numbers, but we’re estimating the carrier covers slightly less than 10 million people across its 34 cities, because its in-city coverage is so limited.

The speed differences between Verizon's 5G and LTE are still mind-blowing.The speed differences between Verizon’s 5G and LTE are still mind-blowing.

Sprint is in fourth place, although it slightly expanded its range so it now covers about 20 million people in 10 metro areas. But will Sprint even exist next month? Judge Victor Marrero gave the go-ahead for T-Mobile to absorb the smaller carrier, but the merger still relies on a delayed California state proceeding and a US District Court judge in Washington DC, Timothy Kelly, who has given no date for an upcoming decision.

A recent OpenSignal report shows the power of Sprint’s mid-band spectrum: The research firm says its combination of reach and speed gives the best overall 4G/5G experience among the carriers. But Sprint has slowed its build-out to a crawl over the past several months as we all sit around waiting to see what happens with the merger. Hopefully, we’ll see mid-band 5G dramatically expand when and if there’s a final decision.

OpenSignal says that mid-band 5G is the way to goOpenSignal says that mid-band 5G is the way to go

More Phones Coming, but Wishing for Even More

The Galaxy S20 lineup is the first real coming-out for the US 5G networks. Samsung’s flagships are always strong sellers, and this year you can’t get them without 5G. That’s a big deal. Later this spring, they’ll be joined by the LG V60 5G as well as a potential 5G Motorola flagship, and then this fall we likely have 5G iPhones to look forward to.

But abroad, choices are much wider, and much less expensive. This month Qualcomm opened our eyes to more than a dozen 5G models coming out globally, most of which we’ll never see in the US. I also recently traveled to Korea, where I found what life is like with a truly fast, broad-coverage 5G network. 

This month will bring a lot of Galaxy S20 devices on the streets, testing 5G networks like never before. The next big step forward will come if and when the T-Mobile and Sprint networks start to merge. If T-Mobile can bring mid-band into its 5G mix, that’ll be a huge step up in speed and coverage. I’m also curious to see if Verizon has an ace in its sleeve to expand 5G coverage, at least through the downtowns of the cities it serves.

As always, we’re keeping up with 5G developments on our Race to 5G page.

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