5G Smartphones Could Crush Your Home Wi-Fi. So Where’s the 5G? – The Wall Street Journal

Blazing fast 5G speeds are here but they aren’t all that useful on the new 5G smartphones. WSJ’s Joanna Stern packed up a motor home to see if the connection could power all her connected gadgets, including laptops, printers, Xboxes and camera-equipped doorbells. She explains the confusing world of 5G along the way. Photo illustration: Sharon Shi

“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.

A Verizon 5G test in Jersey City, conducted with Ookla’s Speedtest app, hits a blisteringly fast 1,300 megabits per second.



Photo:

Joanna Stern/The Wall Street Journal

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 carriers.)

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 your phone.

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 bananas. B-a-n-a-n-a-s!

The Bandwidth Boom

Joanna Stern conducted speed tests of 5G networks in Jersey City and New York City using new Samsung and OnePlus 5G-capable smartphones.

‘ASPHALT 9’ GAME

DOWNLOAD TIME (2 GB)

DOWNLOAD SPEED

Network

FLAVOR

1,298 Mbps

Verizon 5G

mmWave

1m 11s

654

T-Mobile 5G

mmWave

1m 10s

120

Sub-6

2m 40s

AT&T 5G

mmWave

1m 20s

550

Sub-6

2m 28s

100

Verizon FiOS

Fiber / Wi-Fi

2m 15s

100

41.12*

4G

LTE

3m 55s†

‘ASPHALT 9’ GAME

DOWNLOAD TIME (2 GB)

DOWNLOAD SPEED

Network

FLAVOR

1,298 Mbps

Verizon 5G

mmWave

1m 11s

654

T-Mobile 5G

mmWave

1m 10s

120

Sub6

2m 40s

AT&T 5G

mmWave

1m 20s

550

Sub6

2m 28s

100

Verizon FiOS

Fiber / Wi-Fi

2m 15s

100

41.12 *

4G

LTE

3m 55s†

5G

Verizon

4G

LTE

T-Mobile

AT&T

Verizon FiOS

Fiber /Wi-Fi

Network speed, megabits per second

mmWave

Sub-6

Other

1,298

654

550

120

100

100

41.12*

‘ASPHALT 9’ GAME DOWNLOAD TIME (2 GB)

1m 11s

1m 10s

1m 20s

2m 15s

3m 55s†

2m 40s

2m 28s

5G

Verizon

Fiber /Wi-Fi

4G

LTE

Verizon

T-Mobile

AT&T

Network speed, megabits per second

mmWave

Sub-6

Other

1,298

654

550

120

100

100

41.12*

‘ASPHALT 9’ GAME DOWNLOAD TIME (2 GB)

1m 11s

1m 10s

1m 20s

2m 15s

3m 55s†

2m 40s

2m 28s

*Average U.S. 4G LTE cellular download speed across multiple service providers measured by Ookla
†Tested on Verizon 4G
Note: AT&T says due to phone settings, the unlocked Samsung Galaxy Note 20 used in testing might not get the highest mmWave speeds.

Sources: WSJ analysis (5G tests); Ookla (4G speed)

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 carrier’s footprint.

Three Roads to 5G

As U.S. carriers roll out the latest generation of cellular networking, the speed and range you’ll get depends in part on your location—and the frequency of the signal.

Low-band (Sub-6)

Mid-band (Sub-6)

High-band (Millimeter wave)

This works well across long distances and will cover rural areas. Speeds will be greater than 4G but slower than other 5G networks.

Higher in frequency than today’s 4G networks, mid-band offers greater speeds while covering relatively large distances and penetrating walls to work indoors.

Using higher frequencies in the “millimeter-wave” area, this provides the fastest speeds at close range. You need to be near a tower, and the signal has trouble penetrating walls.

AT&T and T-Mobile are rolling out 5G on these frequencies. Verizon says it has plans to deploy low-band 5G this year.

T-Mobile is using more mid-band spectrum acquired from Sprint. Verizon and AT&T are expected to buy more spectrum in this range.

Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile offer this short-range service in select cities.

Low-band

(Sub-6)

Mid-band

(Sub-6)

High-band

(Millimeter wave)

This works well across long distances and will cover rural areas. Speeds will be greater than 4G but slower than other 5G networks.

Using higher frequencies in the “millimeter-wave” area, this provides the fastest speeds at close range. You need to be near a tower, and the signal has trouble penetrating walls.

Higher in frequency than today’s 4G networks, mid-band offers greater speeds while covering relatively large distances and penetrating walls to work indoors.

AT&T and T-Mobile are rolling out 5G on these frequencies. Verizon says it has plans to deploy low-band 5G this year.

Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile offer this short-range service in select cities.

T-Mobile is using more mid-band spectrum acquired from Sprint. Verizon and AT&T are expected to buy more spectrum in this range.

Low-band

(Sub-6)

Mid-band

(Sub-6)

High-band

(Millimeter wave)

This works well across long distances and will cover rural areas. Speeds will be greater than 4G but slower than other 5G networks.

Higher in frequency than today’s 4G networks, mid-band offers greater speeds while covering relatively large distances and penetrating walls to work indoors.

Using higher frequencies in the “millimeter-wave” area, this provides the fastest speeds at close range. You need to be near a tower, and the signal has trouble penetrating walls.

AT&T and T-Mobile are rolling out 5G on these frequencies. Verizon says it has plans to deploy low-band 5G this year.

T-Mobile is using more mid-band spectrum acquired from Sprint. Verizon and AT&T are expected to buy more spectrum in this range.

Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile offer this short-range service in select cities.

High-band (Millimeter wave)

Using higher frequencies in the “millimeter-wave” area, this provides the fastest speeds at close range. You need to be near a tower, and the signal has trouble penetrating walls.

AT&T and T-Mobile are rolling out 5G on these frequencies. Verizon says it has plans to deploy low-band 5G this year.

Mid-band (Sub-6)

Higher in frequency than today’s 4G networks, mid-band offers greater speeds while covering relatively large distances and penetrating walls to work indoors.

T-Mobile is using more mid-band spectrum acquired from Sprint. Verizon and AT&T are expected to buy more spectrum in this range.

Low-band (Sub-6)

This works well across long distances and will cover rural areas. Speeds will be greater than 4G but slower than other 5G networks.

Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile offer this short-range service in select cities.

Source: the companies

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 check.

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?

Trying to find 5G in your town? Look for small cell towers like this one, put up by Verizon in Jersey City.



Photo:

Kenny Wassus/The Wall Street Journal

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 wireless router

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.

Using your 5G smartphone as a Wi-Fi hotspot, you can bring those fast network speeds to other devices.



Photo:

Kenny Wassus/The Wall Street Journal

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 quite good.

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 use.

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 elicit.

The base of a 5G Verizon tower in Jersey City was vandalized with graffiti espousing an internet conspiracy theory about 5G health risks. The federal government has said there is no evidence of such risks.



Photo:

Kenny Wassus/The Wall Street Journal

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 rollout process.

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.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

Have you switched to a 5G phone yet? If so, how has your experience been? What tips do you have for 5G newcomers? Join the conversation below.

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 can download.

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Write to Joanna Stern at joanna.stern@wsj.com

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