T-Mobile turned on its 5G network earlier this week in Houston and nationwide; smartphones that support it go on sale Friday. But when early adopters jump onto the network here, they’re likely to be disappointed.
Tests conducted using a 5G-capable Android phone since Monday show both download and upload speeds can be inconsistent — sometimes within matter of a few yards — and sometimes are much slower than what a 4G device gets at the same spot.
When T-Mobile’s 5G network is fast, it’s not jaw-droppingly so. A top T-Mobile engineer told me in an interview that users can expect about a 20 percent increase over average 4G LTE speeds, and when I saw fast speeds, they matched those expectations. But as a T-Mobile customer with an iPhone 11 Pro Max, I sometimes got speeds just as zippy on that 4G device.
T-Mobile’s 5G network uses the 600-Mhz spectrum, part of which is also used for its 4G service. That’s a frequency that’s much lower than that being used by the two biggest carriers in the United States, AT&T and Verizon. They’re using a higher frequency known as millimeter wave, or mmWave, that’s capable of carrying data at much faster speeds.
For example, when Verizon demonstrated what they’ve branded as Ultra Wideband 5G after turning it on in Houston last month, I saw download speeds of up to 1.7 gigabit per second. I watched as a 115-minute Netflix movie was downloaded in about 5 seconds.
But the downside of mmWave 5G is that it can’t travel very far and is easily blocked. It won’t pass through buildings or even dense foliage; even the glass and steel of a moving car is problematic. By contrast, T-Mobile’s 600-Mhz network, while nowhere near as fast as its competition’s, reaches through walls and into vehicles. It also travels farther from each transmitter, so T-Mobile can boast about using it to get 5G into rural areas often neglected by carriers.
T-Mobile’s proposed merger with Sprint — if it gets past a posse of state attorneys general suing to stop it — would allow the two carriers to combine their 5G spectrum. Sprint uses frequencies above T-Mobile’s and below AT&T and Verizons, in a region known as mid-band. It would give the merged company, which is being called “the New T-Mobile,” more speed, greater range and better barrier penetration.
When I reviewed Sprint’s 5G network shortly after its unveiling in May, I found inconsistent speeds much of the time, but impressive results occasionally. The Sprint 5G signal was not great inside buildings unless I was close to a window. Upload speeds were awful, mainly because Sprint is still using its 4G network for uploads, and its 4G uploads are notoriously bad in Houston.
Unfortunately, Verizon would not loan me a device to test its mobile network — I’ve only seen a brief demo. And despite multiple requests, I’ve not even gotten a demonstration of AT&T’s 5G service. (And no, AT&T’s “5G E” service doesn’t count, it’s just LTE with a faster-sounding name.)
Here are some highlights of my tests of T-Mobile’s 5G:
- The best download speed I saw was 87 Mbps on Monday evening near the intersection of Welch and Shepherd in the Montrose/River Oaks area.
- The worst download speed was a sad 3.1 Mbps at the intersection of Spann Drive and San Felipe, in River Oaks (and not far from the Welch/Shepherd spot, where I saw the fastest).
- Near the intersection of Interstate 10 and Studemont in the Heights, I got about 30 Mbps download on the 5G phone, but my 4G iPhone got more than triple that with a 92-Mbps result at that location.
- The best upload speed was 51 Mbps at the southwest corner of Discovery Green downtown, with a decent download speed of 79 Mbps.
- At my desk in the Mighty Houston Chronicle building at the Southwest Freeway and Loop 610, I’ve averaged around 50 Mbps downloads. On my iPhone, it runs between 30-35 Mbps.
- I sent my results to T-Mobile, asking about some of slower instances, and the company responded with this statement:
“In some places, 600 MHz 5G will be a lot faster than LTE. In others, customers won’t see as much difference. On average, customers with a 600 MHz 5G phone should see a 20 percent download speed boost on top of what T-Mobile’s LTE network delivers, and with the New T-Mobile they can expect that to get exponentially faster over time, just like we saw when 4G was first introduced.”
The smartphone T-Mobile loaned me was the OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren, a $900 Android device, one of the few 5G phones that sells for less than $1,000. It’s a beautiful device, with a true bezel-free display that’s all screen — it’s selfie camera slides up from the top edge. It’s remarkably fast, with decent cameras and no junkware. It’s close to a pure Android interface, has decent battery life and doesn’t seem to get as hot as other 5G phones I’ve tried. I’d buy this phone if I was in the market for a 5G device on T-Mobile’s network.
But if you do grab it, or the Samung S10+ Note 5G, which also works on the T-Mobile network, don’t expect blazing fast speeds … or even speeds that are consistently faster than 4G. Those may come with time, but for now, T-Mobile’s 5G network still needs some work.
My advice from February stands: Wait a while before making the leap to 5G.