The experience of using a 5G phone for the first time is a bit anticlimactic, if I’m being honest. When I picked up an LG V50 ThinQ running on Sprint’s hours-old 5G network in Dallas on Wednesday, an LG rep urged me to observe just how quickly YouTube videos would load. It was fast, no doubt. But after I whipped out my device, and reminded myself what that same experience feels like on AT&T’s soon-to-be outmoded LTE network, the difference seemed almost negligible.
But my perception of how time passes in the millisecond range aside, facts are facts: In all but one of the dozens of speed tests I performed in and around the Marriott hotel in Irving, Texas—roughly 10 miles northwest of Dallas—Sprint’s 5G network clocked in at 27 to 45 times the speed of my 4G service. At its peak, the network was pulling down data at 528 Mbps. That’s two and half times the speed of the fixed Spectrum broadband service I have at home, which, merely 19 miles east of the hotel, falls just beyond the reach of Sprint’s 5G antennas.
The question of whether anyone actually needs phone service that fast is, in my mind, totally irrelevant. To me, fathoming its present usefulness seems pointless. That stupid Field of Dreams cliche is almost worth typing, because as with all technology, once ubiquitous, it’s potential will inevitably be tapped to the max. For now, though, early adopters of 5G will, at a minimum, attain some pretty sweet bragging rights. And don’t kid yourself, that has a lot of market value. Over the course of the next year, 5G users may even spend dozens of fewer minutes staring at loading icons. That, too, is undoubtedly worth something.
In Dallas, Sprint’s new 5G NR (new radio) service is estimated to reach roughly 1.6 million people in a footprint covering 575 square miles. The service launched simultaneously Thursday in Houston, Kansas City, and Atlanta. Overall, some 11.5 million people gained coverage, in what Sprint CTO John Saw called the “largest initial footprint for 5G in the United States.” In coming weeks, the company expects to expand to New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Phoenix, and Washington D.C.
The core technology behind the advancement is called Massive MIMO (multiple input/multiple output). The key thing to know here is that Sprint’s 5G towers are equipped with a total of 128 antennas—as opposed to the 4-to-8 on traditional base towers—including 64 transmitters and 64 receivers. These dozens of additional antennas considerably boost each tower’s capacity. As opposed to AT&T’s super high-frequency “millimeter wave” bands (28GHz and 39GHz) and T-Mobile’s low-band portfolio, Sprint utilizes the mid-band 2.5GHz spectrum. This is something that T-Mobile is very eager to acquire access to via its proposed merger, labeling it absolutely crucial to providing an “ideal mix of coverage and capacity.”
Saw bragged that Sprint is the only operator using what the company calls “split mode,” the ability to deliver LTE Advanced and 5G NR service simultaneously. “We can actually kill two birds with one stone,” he said, noting, in a jab presumably aimed at AT&T, that this cannot be accomplished using millimeter wave.
Sprint was determined Thursday to show off its network’s muscle to a classroom-sized gaggle of reporters. After plying them with breakfast burritos and cold brew coffee, there was a half hour presentation to tout the company’s achievement, which included testimonials by Sprint CEO Michel Combes, Ericsson Executive Vice President Fredrik Jejdling, and LG’s Dr. In-Kyung Kim, head of 5G and mobile research and development. Following the briefing, the reporters were ushered outside and onto a cushy bus for a short drive, the goal of which was to demonstrate the seamlessness of the network’s handover experience.
Monitors in the bus ran a continuous speed test, which peaked at well over 500Mbps and rarely dipped below 300, except for when the speed test app forced itself to refresh. Download speeds appeared twice as fast while on the move than on the second floor of the hotel, where it appeared to top out at around 200Mbps.
After a mile or more, the bus came to a halt next to a large green dumpster filled with bales of hay and a busted brown couch. Ryan Sullivan, Sprint’s vice president of product engineering and development, stood up to address the passengers. “We stayed on our 5G network the entire route,” he said.“That’s really what we wanted to demonstrate here—is that this is not a 5G ‘hotspot’ network.” The remark was intended as a snub toward Sprint’s competitors, whose networks it seeks to portray as “spotty” and unreliable while on the go.
It’s not wrong. Take the Chicago Loop, an area less than two square miles along the city’s waterfront where Verizon’s 5G cells have been up and running for nearly two months. In April, Gizmodo found that, while customers could attain download speeds up into the 500 Mbps range, the service worked at only 19 out of 50 intersections in the area. To the Verizon’s credit through, it isn’t trying to play down the uneven coverage. “We’re still testing, still learning,” a company spokesperson told the Chicago Tribune, which likewise found the service mostly lives up to the hype, “when it works.”
Sullivan claimed the route we were on in Dallas included a total of three handovers, meaning we connected to three separate towers during the 30-minute trip. The speed tests, at least, seemed mostly unaffected, beyond the kinds of fluctuations one might typically expect. The dip in speed that occurs during the handoffs, he said, should be too brief for users to appreciate. “This is broad coverage,” he said, “similar in characteristics to what you’d expect with LTE.”
Promoting its planned $26.5 billion merger with T-Mobile, which gained FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s blessing this month, was also a big part of Sprint’s demo. Its executives argued that the merger would actually foster competition, despite how counterintuitive that sounds. “You can expect that our competitors will not stand still,” CEO Combes said. “Meaning that, they will also be forced to accelerate their own 5G plans in order to remain in the race.”
The Justice Department, whose approval the deal also requires, seems less convinced. Reuters reported this month that the government’s attorneys were prepared to block the merger. And Bloomberg reported that one solution might be forcing T-Mobile and Sprint to spin off a new competitor with the aim of filling the void left behind after the two become one.
Asked whether the company had separate blueprints for its 5G future—one for a successful merger and another in case the deal gets crushed—Combes said Thursday’s rollout should demonstrate that the company has its schedule to keep independent of the outcome. “What I’ll say as well is that we will face quickly some limitation,” he added.
Combining the company’s capabilities with T-Mobile’s low-band spectrum, he insisted, is pivotal to move 5G forward in the future. And that may be the truth. There’s no shortage of industry experts lining up to say as much. Consumer advocates, on the other hand, find Sprint’s claim that major market consolidations encourage competition insane. Gigi Sohn, a leading public advocate and former senior FCC adviser, called the behavioral conditions written into the proposal to safeguard consumers “speculative, unsubstantiated, and entirely unenforceable.”
Nothing in T-Mobile’s filings indicate they’re capable of meeting the goals they’ve laid out, she said, “and much like the broken promises of other big broadband, telephone, and cable providers, they are wildly optimistic.”
When it comes to hardware, Sprint claims the title of the largest portfolio of 5G devices in the U.S., including the LG V50 ThinQ and the HTC 5G Hub, a hotspot-like device equipped with a touchscreen that supports up to 20 connections, which may soon replace fixed broadband service in some homes. This summer, Sprint customers will also be able to utilize its 5G network using a version of Samsung’s Galaxy S10 phone.