How fast do you want 5G to be? What kind of data speed do you need to see before you can justify upgrading to a 5G phone? Having spent time testing the 5G networks of Verizon and Sprint over the last few weeks, it’s clear to me that they’ve started down very different paths.
On the one hand, you’ve got Verizon and its millimeter wave tech, which can deliver eye-popping download speeds of over 1 Gbps, letting you download a movie — several, even — or an entire season of a TV show from Netflix in seconds. You can install huge games on your phone or tablet just as quickly. Websites load instantly. The sheer speed of it all is plainly noticeable and feels... new.
But Verizon’s 5G network can also come off as very pie in the sky when you’ve got amazing data speeds one minute and then you lose them completely on the next street (or just further down the same block). Walk into a Starbucks, and you won’t be able to show anyone those lightning-fast downloads because they don’t exist indoors. 5G coverage is so spotty and random that Verizon still isn’t comfortable sharing a map of where you’ll find a steady 5G signal.
Sprint is on a different track. As the fourth place US carrier continues to push regulators to approve its merger with T-Mobile sometime in the next few months, it’s moving ahead with its own 5G plans. Last week, the company launched 5G service in four US cities, and it did so in a more traditional way than Verizon or AT&T. There’s actually a coverage map, and Sprint’s 5G signal reaches wide sections of each market without the block-by-block uncertainty that confronts Verizon’s early 5G adopters. And get this: the 5G network indicator appears when you’re in an area with 5G reception instead of confusingly only popping up when you’re actively using data, as it does on Verizon’s two 5G phones.
But the data speeds don’t necessarily scream “5G.” Sprint says its customers can expect downloads of over 100 Mbps to be the norm. To a lot of people, that might not feel like a generational leap over 4G LTE. But remember that in the real world, average 4G LTE speeds — and yes, even AT&T’s 5G E buffoonery — come in well below 50 Mbps. On a bus route the company took journalists on yesterday, we saw bursts of over 600 Mbps at times, and Sprint’s engineers claim they’ve seen it cross that gigabit mark in certain places.
In my own experience with the new LG V50, Sprint’s guidance has been on the money. There were places like my hotel where I saw the 5G icon but pulled down far below 100 Mbps. But in the sections of town where Sprint says coverage is strong, real-world testing generally seemed to bear that out. My iPhone XS Max on Verizon couldn't hold a candle to numbers that the V50 was putting up.
From the perspective of Sprint CTO John Saw, even this early 5G network performance should satisfy most everything that someone would want to do from a mobile device. Downloading those Netflix shows or something from Prime Video is still clearly faster than doing the same on an LTE device. 5G doesn’t come cheap on Sprint, however, requiring the carrier’s most expensive $80 unlimited plan. At least you get free Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Tidal as part of that subscription.
When I connected my MacBook Pro to the new HTC 5G Hub’s Wi-Fi hot spot, I got download speeds of over 300 Mbps. You could do a lot with that, and it’s quicker than what some people get from their home broadband. Up to 20 devices can connect to the Hub, and there’s even an Ethernet jack around back. (For now, the 5G Hub is limited to a maximum of 100GB for data usage each month, but Sprint claims its ultimate goal with 5G is getting rid of any data caps.)
The 5G Hub seemed to consistently outperform the V50 in terms of speed tests, which makes sense since Sprint says there’s more room for a beefier 5G modem in here than you'd get with a phone. And the 7,660mAh battery inside the Hub is no joke, easily lasting for several hours of tethering when I was out and about at several locations in Dallas.
I was able to take this strange companion device into a coffee shop or bar and get real work done on a data hookup that was basically indistinguishable from my (very fast) home Wi-Fi. I could watch 4K content on YouTube without any interruptions or buffering pauses. And that, strange as it may seem, is something that Verizon can’t yet achieve with its own 5G network and millimeter wave — unless you’re outside and nearby one of its 5G nodes. “Mobile 5G” is a constant term that Sprint is using to signify that its network has consistency and reach. It was constantly present, though not always, as I Ubered around Dallas last week. As the 5G expansion rolls on, coverage should look pretty close to the carrier’s LTE footprint since it’s being built on top of that network.
From a customer perspective, Sprint’s approach seems to be the better one at the moment. It feels familiar but offers a tangible step up in speed. But we’re still in the very early days of 5G. Verizon’s network will certainly improve. AT&T has yet to offer up a flagship 5G device, though its network is already live in several cities. And it sounds like T-Mobile is getting ready to tackle huge metro areas like New York.
But there are still shortcomings. Both Verizon and Sprint are currently limiting 5G uploads to LTE speeds, so you creators out there can forget uploading YouTube videos on the go for now. I also wonder about what type of red tape these carriers will come up with in the months ahead. Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint all limit to 480p video quality on their base LTE plans, so are we truly to believe that customers will be able to go full throttle on these 5G connections? I have serious doubts.
But the bottom line is that 5G is actually here. Sprint can say that without many asterisks or exaggerations, and UK carriers are also getting on board. I’m looking forward to seeing and testing whatever comes next, even if a 5G iPhone is at least a year away.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge