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Thinking of buying a 5G smartphone? Finding your carrier’s flavor of 5G requires a taste for investigation

Rob Pegoraro
Special to USA TODAY

5G wireless is no longer vaporware, but a lot of haze still surrounds the forms of 5G each nationwide carrier sells.

The major carriers began rolling out 5G coverage more a year ago. However, their maps don’t clarify what sort of next-generation mobile broadband touches your neighborhood, nor can you easily identify the level of 5G service a phone provides.

“Marketing from a 5G perspective is all over the place,” said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst with Creative Strategies.

The underlying problem here is that U.S. carriers offer three kinds of 5G, each on different sets of frequencies that trade speed and coverage.

A look at all the 5G flavors

Industry experts describe the various flavors of 5G as similar to a layer cake:

• The lowest, widest layer is 5G on the same low-band frequencies as 4G. The increased efficiency of 5G makes it moderately faster, and you should eventually see this close to everywhere. AT&T and T-Mobile sell this 5G, while Verizon will later this year.

• Next up comes 5G on midband frequencies, with a considerable boost in speed at some sacrifice in range. This is T-Mobile territory, thanks to it buying Sprint and taking over its 5G bands.

• Millimeter-wave 5G tops the cake, outpacing many wired broadband connections but only reaching maybe 1,500 unobstructed feet. All three carriers offer 5G service here.

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Sizing up 5G coverage, smartphones 

To put numbers on this, consider the testing firm Opensignal’s 5G findings from May 2020. AT&T and T-Mobile, almost all low-band 5G, averaged download speeds of 63 and 47 Mbps; Sprint’s midband hit 114 Mbps; Verizon’s mm-wave rocketed to 506 Mbps. (Their 4G downloads ranged around 30 Mbps.) But where T-Mobile users had 5G almost 20% of the time, Verizon’s only saw it 0.5% of the time.

Coverage maps and phone specs at the carriers’ sites gloss over those distinctions.

AT&T’s map shows its low-band 5G – as of last week, spanning the nation – but not millimeter-wave, which it labels “5G+.” (AT&T has sold its fastest 4G as “5G E”; ignore that puffery.) Another page touts some two dozen mm-wave 5G markets but offers no further coverage detail.

Of the seven 5G phones AT&T sells, the Samsung S20+ 5G and S20 Ultra 5G support both 5G and 5G+, as listed under “Wireless technology” in their specs; others do only low-band.

T-Mobile’s 5G coverage map also doesn’t differentiate between low-band, midband and mm-wave offerings. Among its seven 5G phones, the OnePlus 8 5G, Samsung A71 5G and S20 5G, and both LG V60 ThinQ 5G models handle low- and midband; only the Samsung S20+ 5G and S20 Ultra 5G support all three of T-Mobile’s 5G flavors.

T-Mo’s listings don’t say that directly, however, leaving shoppers to cross-reference band numbers like “n41” and “n260” with a tech-support explainer. And in the case of the three S20 models, the specs are wrong anyway; a press release has the correct information. T-Mobile spokesman Justin Paulsen said Tuesday that the company was working to fix those errors. 

At Verizon, the coverage map omits 5G, reserving it for city-specific pages that reveal millimeter-wave 5G often blinking on and off block by block. All its current 5G phones (save the mm-wave-only Samsung Note 10+ 5G) support that plus its future low-band service, but Verizon’s spec sheets for phones don’t always match the correct info on corresponding press releases.

"Carrier sales pages are extremely unclear and often confused about which variants of 5G their devices support, when there are multiple options, and the Web sites make it hard to filter or find out the answers,” said PCMag.com lead mobile analyst Sascha Segan.

Upcoming smartphone chipsets should ease these compatibility problems and improve battery life. The conclusion for shoppers able to resist the lure of shiny new things: In this strange game, the only winning move is not to play.

Milanesi’s advice. “Sit out a little bit longer before you go to 5G.”

Rob Pegoraro is a tech writer based out of Washington, D.C. To submit a tech question, email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com. Follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.