Last Friday marked a small but still significant milestone in the development of 5G because when T-Mobile flipped on its 5G network in six cities across the country, it meant all four major U.S. carriers finally had some form of publicly available 5G coverage up and running.
T-Mobile is the last major carrier to bring its 5G network online, so just having access to faster mobile data doesn’t feel quite as revolutionary as it did a few months ago. Like Verizon, T-Mobile’s 5G network is still in its early stages of development, and as such, it is prone to a lot of the same limitations. Overall, coverage even within supported cities remains spotty, only downloads (not uploads) are carried over 5G, and simply being able to tell when you are connected to 5G remains a bit frustrating, as T-Mobile’s 5G icon only appears when you are actively using data.
More disappointing is that despite T-Mobile’s repeated claims about the advantages of 5G broadcast on sub-6 GHz bands, currently, T-Mobile’s live 5G service is only running on mmWave frequencies, which is the same as what Verizon is doing with 5G in Chicago, Minneapolis, and a handful of other cities. T-Mobile’s sub-6Ghz spectrum is supposed to form the backbone of its developing 5G network, and compared to mmWave tech, sub-6GHz 5G offers much wider coverage distances and better signal penetration, as opposed mmWave which has a range that typically extends just a block or two from the nearest cell tower, and is blocked almost completely by things like buildings, walls, and even windows.
There are two mains reasons for T-Mobile’s current approach to 5G. First, T-Mobile says that while it’s building out its sub-6Ghz capacity, it’s simply not ready for live deployment yet. Second, and even more importantly, there aren’t any phones that support sub-6GHz 5G right now. About a month ago, MediaTek announced a new mobile processor specifically designed to handle 5G on the sub-6GHz and 2.5-GHz bands, but it isn’t slated to be available in production devices until Q1 2020. That means T-Mobile doesn’t have a lot of options when it comes to 5G handsets, so for now, the only supported phone is the Galaxy S10 5G.
Even so, after facing the freezing winds of Chicago while testing out Verizon’s 5G network, I still wanted to explore the realities of T-Mobile’s 5G for myself. In the end, it wasn’t much different than previous experiences, but there are still a number of notable takeaways.
The first big difference is that unlike AT&T and Verizon, T-Mobile has created a coverage map for all six cities where its 5G network is currently available. While this might sound like an obvious move—especially in a time when most people take 4G coverage for granted—this is hugely important. Not only does T-Mobile’s 5G map make it much easier to figure out how useful 5G might be for you, but it also transforms the process of finding and using 5G from something that’s like a techy version of Hide-and-Seek into something much easier to use and understand.
If you know you’re going to need fast downloads, you can just look at the map and see if you are covered or not. Even now, I think it’s strange AT&T and Verizon haven’t come up with something similar. Their network engineers know exactly where their 5G nodes are, which should make the process of mapping their 5G coverage relatively trivial. Sprint offers its own 5G map, though as PC Mag discovered, there are some discrepancies between its map and its actual 5G coverage.
Thankfully, from what I observed, T-Mobile’s map is reasonably accurate, with a margin of error of only about half or block or so. For this round of testing, I only had four hours of testing time, so after starting out in Tompkins Square in Manhattan’s East Village, I decided to walk across the island through NoHo, up into the Flatiron District, and then over to Chelsea before finishing next to the Hudson River on the west side of Manhattan. Along the way, I tracked data speeds using Ookla’s Speedtest.net app while visiting many of the big parks and squares.
Overall, T-Mobile’s 5G speeds averaged around 250 Mbps down (which is about five to ten times higher than its typical 4G speeds), with a peak of 550 Mbps in Washington Square Park, and a low of around 20 Mbps in a number of locations. Those low numbers might seem alarming, as 20Mbps isn’t much better than what you can get on 4G (or possibly worse depending on where you are). But those speeds are more of a symptom of the hand-off between 4G and 5G, where the phone can detect the presence of nearby 5G signals, but isn’t quite close enough to access full 5G speeds. When I was connected to 5G, downloading apps from the Google Play Store was practically instant, and grabbing an episode of Justified from Amazon Prime Video took seconds, instead of multiple minutes like it would on 4G.
In terms of accuracy, T-Mobile’s coverage map was largely on point, almost shockingly so. For example, in Madison Square Park, T-Mobile’s map showed that only the top third of the park between 25th and 26th Street had 5G coverage, while the bottom two-thirds of the park fell back to 4G, which is exactly what I experienced when I walked a lap around the outside of the park with the S10 5G in hand.
Meanwhile, Union Square was in the dark just like T-Mobile’s map suggested, and while I got my fastest 5G speed of the day in the northeast corner of Washington Square Park, the rest of the park only had 4G service—again, just like it appears on the map. My biggest gripe is that T-Mobile 5G map isn’t interactive, which meant I spent a lot of time flipping between the T-Mobile coverage map and Google Maps to get a sense where I supposed to find 5G.
The other learning experience came from using the Galaxy S10 5G. Unlike, the Moto Z3 and its companion 5G mod that I used when test Verizon’s 5G network, the S10 5G feels just like a regular phone. There’s no special procedures or babysitting I had to do in exchange for faster speeds. Its battery life was particularly impressive. I started my testing at 93 percent battery, and after four hours of nearly nonstop testing and 5G usage, the S10 5G still had 49 percent left.
In short, the S10 5G performed as expected, which doesn’t sound like much, but compared to Motorola’s more cumbersome multi-gadget solution, the S10 5G was refreshingly simple.
Now back to the question at hand: Is it time for T-Mobile customers to starting thinking about getting a 5G phone? Nah, it’s still too soon for that, especially in light of T-Mo’s sub-6GHz 5G not being available yet. As a whole, 5G remains something strictly for early adopters while carriers continue to build out their networks and 5G infrastructure.
Seeing T-Mobile 5G hit speeds of 500 Mbps on day one is encouraging, but it’s still short of the 1Gbps speeds people tend to tout when discussing the full potential of next-gen cell networks. More importantly, though, there’s still a lot of work to do. We need more devices, better coverage, a more interactive map, and better 5G penetration before buying 5G gadgets make sense. After all, New York City is much bigger than just lower Manhattan.