Not all 5G is equal. Even if you dropped the cash on a true 5G phone and you see it's connected to 5G in the status bar, that doesn't mean you're surfing the web, streaming Spotify, and binging Netflix faster than your friends with LTE phones.
The first thing you have to understand is that there isn't just one type of 5G. Unlike 4G, which is essentially one small range of speeds, 5G can be broken down into three different categorizations, or "bands:"
- Low-band (600–700 MHz): this is the slowest 5G connection, and provides a marginal boost over 4G speeds. Categorized under Frequency Range 1 (FR1), aka "sub-6," as in under 6 GHz.
- Mid-band (2.5–3.7 GHz): this is the mid-level 5G connection, providing much faster speeds than 4G. Also categorized under FR1.
- High-band (25–39 GHz): Signals in Frequency Range 2, also known as mmWave. This is 5G at its best, providing speeds and latency that rival or even surpass what you can get with the best home internet connection.
Depending on which band of 5G you're connected to, you'll experience vastly different results. If you and a friend both have 5G phones, and you're connected to a low-band signal while your friend is connected to mmWave, your friend's phone is going to outperform yours by a mile.
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If you use Verizon or AT&T, the first thing you should do is to take a look at the 5G icon in your phone's status bar. If it simply reads 5G, you're connected to either a low or mid-band 5G network. However, if you see 5G UWB (Verizon) or 5G+ (AT&T), you're connected to the mmWave network. These icons are your heads-up that you're in an area that supports the best 5G possible.
Unfortunately, that trick only applies to Verizon and AT&T. T-Mobile doesn't change its 5G icon as you switch between mmWave and low or mid-band service. Sprint doesn't currently have devices that access mmWave, so no confusion there.
But checking your phone's status icon isn't the most precise way to know what type of 5G is supported in your area. For that, you should check your carrier's most recent 5G information. They'll have an ever-growing coverage map of their 5G network, including the type of 5G they offer.
If you're saying to yourself "Hey, what about the 5G E icon I see? What type of 5G is that?" we're sorry to inform you that what you're connected to isn't 5G at all. Blame AT&T, my friend.
Not all 5G is equal, and neither are all 5G phones. It all comes down to the bands built-into the phone. If it has bands capable of connecting to both mmWave and sub-6, you'll be set wherever you go. However, if it can only connect to lower 5G bands, you'll never be able to take advantage of mmWave speeds.
There are four bands that can currently connect to mmWave — n257, n258, n260, and n261. In order to know whether a phone can connect to mmWave, you need to check out its specifications ahead of time and look for at least one of those four bands. If you don't see any, the phone isn't mmWave-ready.
Let's take a look at some examples. Currently, the only phones that support both mmWave and sub-6 are the Galaxy S20+ and Galaxy S20 Ultra. The base S20 doesn't support mmWave, which is why Verizon won't carry the device, at least until Samsung makes a mmWave-compatible version. You wouldn't know that from looking at the shiny 5G logo on the box, however, and could easily pick up the S20 as it's the cheapest option of the bunch. The OnePlus 8 technically has the capability to connect to both mmWave and sub-6, but not until Verizon launches its sub-6 network first.
Speaking of the OnePlus 8, here's another example. Like many Android phones, OnePlus' latest is slightly different depending on whether you pick it up from Verizon or T-Mobile. Only the Verizon model is mmWave-compatible, as it supports n260 and n261 bands. T-Mobile's version simply doesn't. Verizon actually makes things a bit clearer, as it labels its mmWave devices UW (ultra-wideband) right in the title.
Here's another piece of the puzzle — just because you're connected to mmWave 5G, doesn't mean you're maximizing that connection's potential. How can that be?
See, while a super-fast connection, one of mmWave's biggest issues is that it offers a pretty weak signal range. That means you need to be relatively close to a mmWave cell tower in order to be connected at all. But that short range is just the beginning, since the signal will also be drastically affected by solid objects, as well.
The lower frequencies used with 4G and low-band 5G are great at passing through objects like buildings and trees, meaning it's not hard to stay connected to a strong signal over a large area. With mmWave, however, a building wall can mean the difference between 1.5 Gbps speeds, and 200 Mbps.
This example shows just how far mmWave technology still has to go. Sure, if you can find a mmWave tower near you, and stand close enough to it so that there is no physical interference, you can enjoy some insane speeds. But for most purposes, this simply isn't practical. Still, don't get us wrong — if you can be connected to mmWave in any capacity, with or without interference, you're going to have a good time.
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