By Joanna Stern
"You know, this internet connection is just too fast. Please
slow it down. Maybe just as my boss asks me something important in
a video call, " said...no one in 2020.
With so many people dragging along with subpar broadband, you'd
think there would be more buzz around the arrival of the blazing
fast 5G mobile networks and their accompanying smartphones. They're
like the Incredibles, here to save us from careening off the
broadband cliff, right? Except...well, a lot of excepts.
First, let's clear up a few things. This isn't the 5G setting on
your home Wi-Fi router (that's 5 GHz), nor the 5GE that you might
see on an AT&T smartphone (that's just better 4G).
This 5G is the fifth generation of cellular networks, designed
to replace 4G, aka LTE. AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile have all
been building out their networks here in the U.S. You may have
heard how it will unlock the future of self-driving cars, augmented
reality and lots of other buzzword-bingo tech terms.
Most of that isn't quite ready, but what is? A bunch of new 5G
phones, including an expected iPhone, that are required to tap the
speeds of these new networks. And though they are completely
upgraded inside, you don't need to sell an internal organ to buy
one. I've been testing the $600 Samsung Galaxy A71 5G on AT&T
and T-Mobile and the $800 OnePlus 8 5G on Verizon. (I've also been
testing an unlocked $1,300 Galaxy Note 20 Ultra on all three
Just some tiny issues: Finding the optimal and fastest 5G
connection is like searching for a Tic Tac in a Target. And when
you do find it, there just isn't a ton you can do with it just on
That's why, a year after my first 5G expedition, I got back on
the streets to run hundreds of tests -- this time with an RV packed
with more than a dozen connected gadgets -- to see if 5G could
replace my home Wi-Fi. As this year's findings confirm, a 5G phone
is an extravagance, but if 5G is coming to your neighborhood, you
might start rethinking your home internet strategy.
Finding 1: So freakin' fast -- in the right spot.
Let's review some stats: On Verizon's 5G Ultra Wideband network
in Jersey City, N.J., still in prelaunch testing, I consistently
hit 1,300 megabits per second in download speed tests. That's
That's 32 times the average 4G download speed, according to
internet speed-test company Ookla. It's 13 times the speed of my
home broadband network. Don't speak megabits? I downloaded the full
first season of "Ozark" (2.6 gigabytes) in under five minutes. But
although I live just around the block from a newly erected Verizon
5G tower, I can't get that speed in my home.
That's because the crazytown-fast flavor of 5G -- called
millimeter wave after its high radio frequencies -- can't travel
long distances and obstacles like trees and walls can slow it down.
Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T are putting up millimeter-wave cells
in bigger cities and in open public spots we used to frequent in
pre-Covid times, like stadiums and parks.
Finding 2: Not all 5G is equal.
Most people won't see that sort of speed very often. On Verizon,
when you leave an area with millimeter-wave coverage, now only
available in parts of 36 markets, your phone reverts to 4G.
T-Mobile and AT&T supplement millimeter wave with another
type of 5G, called sub-6. Named for using frequencies under 6 GHz,
it isn't as fast but it provides far wider indoor and outdoor
coverage. No need to hug a tower. According to Ookla's latest
report, T-Mobile had the largest 5G footprint in the U.S., with
over 5,000 deployments. AT&T came in second with 237 and
Verizon with 36. Heidi Hemmer, Verizon's vice president of network
engineering, told me the company will launch its lower-band 5G
coverage by the end of this year, which will greatly expand the
In spots in Jersey City with optimal sub-6 coverage, I saw
download speeds around 120 Mbps on T-Mobile and 90 Mbps on AT&T
-- just like my home broadband. But in other spots, while the
phones still showed 5G reception, the speed was more like 4G.
Those 5G indicators on these new smartphones are mostly just
wishful thinking, in my experience. You can check the maps from
each of the carriers but you'll still want to run a test app like
Ookla's Speedtest to see what kind of 5G you're getting.
Another fun point of confusion: While most new 5G phones support
both sub-6 and millimeter wave, some only support sub-6. Be sure to
Finding 3: T-Mobile is the current best bet.
After three weeks of testing, I was left wanting a T-Mobile 5G
phone. The network consistently delivered great speed wherever I
went. Plus, with the Sprint acquisition, T-Mobile will be launching
even faster sub-6 coverage, referred to as mid-band 5G.
Verizon was like whiplash -- mind-blowing speeds at the cell
tower, 4G speeds when I walked away. In my home, there was no
Verizon 5G, while T-Mobile beat my 4G phone and my home broadband.
And when it came to practical performance of millimeter wave vs.
sub-6 in scrolling, streaming, video calling and other activities,
both were very fast. I couldn't feel any difference -- at least not
on my phone.
Finding 4: 5G isn't really for smartphones.
When I asked executives at each of the big carriers where I'd
really experience the 5G speed on a smartphone, they all said
variations of the same thing: 5G will unlock the technology of the
future, but for now...hefty downloads!
David Christopher, executive vice president and general manager
of AT&T Mobility, talked about downloading the entire Harry
Potter movie collection in 2 minutes. Verizon's Ms. Hemmer
mentioned downloading "Stranger Things" and HD video calling. And
Karri Kuoppamaki, T-Mobile vice president of radio network
technology and strategy? Video and game downloads!
Even so, how often do any of us even download movies anymore?
Maybe before a flight? But...where are you flying these days?
Finding 5: Home is where the 5G should be.
I found 5G to be far faster than the nationwide average
home-internet speed, 86 Mbps, reported by Ookla. As you'll see in
my video, I moved 15 of my home gadgets into an RV -- laptops,
tablets, a 32-inch TV, an Xbox One, a Ring doorbell, etc. -- to see
if the connections could handle it. The only real bottlenecks were
the 5G phones themselves, which aren't meant to serve as hotspots
for so many devices at a time and don't have the range of a
Simultaneously video calling and streaming video on up to six
devices was no problem. There was little or no lag playing
multiplayer games on the Xbox One, and when I fired up an Oculus
Rift VR headset and attended a virtual comedy show, everything
loaded quickly and ran smoothly. Try any of that on 4G and you'll
feel the frustration.
I did miss my home connection when I uploaded files. None of the
networks hit upload speeds of 100 Mbps, like I get on my home
connection -- most hovered between 20 and 50 Mbps, which is still
Verizon has already launched home 5G service in five markets.
T-Mobile is preparing to launch home 5G nationwide and AT&T
said it doesn't have any immediate plans for a home option.
Finding 6: 5G doesn't cost more...right now.
If you're wondering how much more 5G service is going to cost
you, the answer depends on the plan you currently have. If you have
an unlimited plan with one of the carriers, chances are, it isn't
much more. All T-Mobile plans include 5G network access. AT&T
has 5G baked into all its unlimited plans. Three out of four of
Verizon's unlimited plans have 5G access included right now; you
can add it to that remaining unlimited plan for $10 a month.
While this could change in the future, the carriers currently
don't charge extra for 5G hotspot access and you can connect as
many devices as the phone will allow. But you'll want to check if
your carrier has a mobile hotspot limit, which will slow your
speeds after you've used a certain amount of 5G data. These caps
tend to be far lower than the monthly average of home broadband
Finding 7: 5G freaks some people out.
Written on one of the 5G Verizon poles in my Jersey City
neighborhood: "5G FOR UR BRAIN FRY." An engineer working on a pole
in the area said he has been harassed and carries a form letter
from Verizon to provide to neighbors who are seeking more
information about the health and property concerns the poles
The internet is full of chatter about possible health impacts of
5G radiation. The major U.S. regulatory bodies, including the FDA
and the FCC, maintain there is no scientific evidence linking
wireless devices to illness, and that 5G doesn't change enough
about the current cellular technology to increase the concern. The
FDA says it continues to monitor the scientific information as it
becomes available, specifically related to 5G. Executives from all
the carriers said these concerns over 5G haven't stalled the
Finding 8: The 5G marketing hype is strong.
My goodness, 5G is fast. And the carriers and the phone makers
will spend the next year hyping the hype out of why you can't live
without it and how it's going to change everything. "We believe 5G
will unleash a whole new set of experiences down the road and it
will have a profound impact on society," said Mr. Kuoppamaki.
He may not be wrong. A decade ago, 4G unlocked a whole new class
of mobile applications, and many, many billion-dollar businesses.
So we don't know what 5G will bring. But I do know that right now,
these speeds are largely confined to certain geographic areas and
to your phone. And there are only so many Harry Potter movies you
--Kenny Wassus contributed to this article.
-- For more WSJ Technology analysis, reviews, advice and
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Write to Joanna Stern at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
August 17, 2020 09:40 ET (13:40 GMT)
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