In the United States, the four main wireless carriers are rolling out 5G services. Find out what they are offering and how fast their 5G service might be.

The race to 5G has started in earnest around the world. In the United States, the four main wireless carriers — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon — are rolling out 5G services.

Although 5G has several important advantages over 4G (e.g., lower latency, more bandwidth), the main selling point the carriers are touting is 5G’s fast speed. How fast is it? Surprisingly, that is a tough question to answer. Many factors affect the speed of a 5G connection, such as how the signals are being transmitted and the type of compression technology being employed. The most important factor, though, is the frequency band being used.

The 5G Frequency Bands

Like its predecessors, 5G uses radio waves, which are part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Radio waves have different frequencies. The radio waves being used to deliver 5G cellular service fall into three frequency bands:

  • Low band
  • Mid band, which is sometimes referred to as the sub-6 GHz (0r sub 6) band because the frequencies are less than 6 gigahertz (GHz)
  • High band, which is often referred to as the millimeter wave (mmWave) band because the wavelengths range from 1 to 10 millimeters

The radio waves in these three frequency bands have different traits, as Table 1 shows. In general, radio waves with higher frequencies are faster than radio waves with lower frequencies, but the speed comes at a price. Radio waves with higher frequencies have a shorter range than radio waves with lower-frequencies. For example, mmWaves have the fastest speeds, but their range is only a mile or less. Plus, they cannot easily travel through some objects such as buildings, according to IEEE. They can even be absorbed by foliage and rain – a phenomenon known as rain fade.

Table 1. Comparison of the 5G Frequency Bands in the United States

  High band

(aka mmWave band)

Mid band

(aka sub-6 GHz band)

 Low band
Frequency 24 GHz and higher Between 1 GHz and 6 GHz Below 1 GHz (600 MHz to 900 MHz)
Download speed Super fast (in the real world, 1 to 3 Gbps; theoretically can reach 10 Gbps) Fast (100 to 900 Mbps) Not as fast (30 to 250 Mbps)
Range Short (1 mile or less) Medium (several miles) Long (hundreds of square miles)
Ability of radio waves to travel through objects Cannot travel through some types of objects (e.g., buildings) Can travel through most objects Can travel through almost anything

Wireless carriers are using various technologies to offset the mmWave limitations. For example, they are using beamformingsmall cells, and massive MIMO to deal with its short ranges and inability to travel through buildings.

The Carriers and Their Bands

Eventually, all four major wireless carriers might include all three frequency bands in their 5G services, but that is not the case right now. Here are the types of 5G coverage they decided to offer in the short term and how far along they are in providing it:

  • Verizon is concentrating on providing high-band 5G coverage. It has already rolled it out to consumers in more than 30 cities. In addition, it has set up high-band 5G networks at several business locations, including a shipyard and 16 football stadiums.
  • T-Mobile has rolled out low-band 5G coverage to more than 200 million people nationwide in December 2019. It is planning to add mid-band coverage if its merger with Sprint goes through.
  • Sprint has rolled out both low-band and mid-band 5G coverage to consumers in nine cities.
  • AT&T is providing high-band coverage to densely populated areas in 21 cities. That number will rise to 30 in early 2020. For suburban and rural locations, it is in the process of rolling out low-band coverage nationwide.

This is only a snapshot of the current 5G services being offered by the four wireless carriers. The numbers and locations covered will no doubt change as the 5G race continues in the next few years.

It is important to keep in mind that a lot of existing and new technologies are involved in providing 5G services (especially when using mmWaves), so there will likely be bumps along the way. For example, when mmWave coverage is first introduced in a city, there might be good coverage in one area (e.g., downtown) but spotty coverage in other areas.

Keep the Bands in Mind

If you are interested in getting a 5G mobile device for personal or business use, it is important to do your homework first. You need to research the carriers to find out what 5G frequency bands they use, where their cell towers are located (now and in the near future), and the mobile devices they offer. That way, you can select a 5G service that best meets your needs.