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Verizon vs. AT&T vs. T-Mobile compared: How to pick the best 5G carrier for you

Cost, phone, speed and coverage. As new iPhone and Galaxy models approach, here's what you'll want to know.

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5G in the US just got a big shakeup. Here's how to choose the best carrier now.

Graphic by Pixabay/Illustration by CNET

The coronavirus pandemic may be pumping the brakes on phone sales, but 5G development is still speeding along. Despite an onslaught of conspiracy theories that have resulted in physical damage to 5G towers, the major US carriers -- Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile -- continue to add new 5G phones and expand their networks. One carrier, however, is conspicuously absent. 

Sprint is now out of the running, with the Big Four becoming the Big Three now that T-Mobile has closed its mega-merger and is bringing Sprint customers into the fold. Sprint's original 5G network is getting shut down, with T-Mobile relaunching it to work better with its existing 5G networks. While that spells stronger future performance, it also means 2019 Sprint 5G devices will lose their 5G access. 

Samsung is already incorporating 5G into its newest Z Flip. It's expected to add the feature to the Galaxy Note 20 and the next Galaxy Fold, rumored to be called the Galaxy Z Fold 2. So considering that and the fact that 2020 iPhones are expected to feature 5G in the fall, what does this mean for you and your future 5G phone? 

In practice, you may not see a 5G network for a while, especially if you live somewhere more rural than urban. Even if 5G is already in your area, coverage zones may be small and the reception may be iffy -- the carriers say they're constantly improving their network capacity. When the time comes, you'll need to know which carrier gives you the most for your money.

We're going to talk about:

  • What kind of 5G you can expect on your phone.
  • How much the carriers could charge for 5G access.
  • What kind of coverage you might get.
  • How 5G affects 4G data networks.
  • If you should buy a 5G phone now or wait.

Remember, 5G is an inevitability, the same way that 4G replaced 3G before it. Eventually, it will come to us all. Whether you decide to pick a 5G network now or wait to see how 5G rolls out in your area, here's what to consider when you look at a 5G mobile carrier.

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Cost: 5G phones and plans aren't cheap

The selection of 5G phones you can buy in carrier stores and online is growing. But when we talk about the cost of owning a 5G phone, we're not just talking about the amount you pay for the device itself. There's also the monthly cost of your payment plan. 

We're going to give it to you straight: Sifting through carrier plans is a messy, painstaking business that also gets confusing, fast. To own a 5G phone, most carriers require you to sign up for one of their latest unlimited plans. However, the plans often don't always specify that they'll work with 5G phones. The ones we picked apart work with 4G LTE phones as well. Our best suggestion? Search for the device you want (or any 5G device) to see which plans are compatible, then go from there.

If you search for all plans without specifying a 5G device, you'll see more plan options, many of them cheaper but that may not apply to the 5G device you're eyeing. If you also don't care for 5G and have an older plan you'll still be able to get the phone, it just will be limited to 4G LTE. 

As always, we suggest looking out for deals, like a bundle or buy-one, get-one, or else some enticement to sign on with a new carrier. Remember, too, that if the price of a 5G phone seems steep, you can pay month by month instead of buying the phone outright. As with any phone, the downside is that you may still wind up paying for a first-gen 5G phone that in two years could feel out of date.

Comparison of 5G data plans for big 4 US carriers

Mobile carrier Monthly, individual Monthly, family/group Hotspot monthly allowance Other fees
Verizon Play More Unlimited* $80/1 line $45 per line/4 lines 15GB $10 a month access fee, currently waived
Verizon Do More Unlimited* $80/1 line $45 per line/4 lines 15GB $10 a month access fee, currently waived
Verizon Get More Unlimited $90/1 line $55 per line/4 lines 30GB $10 a month access fee, currently waived
AT&T Unlimited Extra $75/1 line $40 per line/4 lines 15GB
AT&T Unlimited Elite $85/1 line $50 per line/4 lines 30GB
Sprint Unlimited Basic $60/1 line $25 per line/4 lines 500MB
Sprint Unlimited Plus $70/1 line $35 per line/4 lines 50GB
Sprint Unlimited Premium $80/1 line $45 per line/4 lines 100GB
T-Mobile Essentials $60/1 line $30 per line/4 lines Unlimited for 3G
T-Mobile Magenta $70/1 line $35 per line/4 lines 3GB
T-Mobile Magenta Plus $85/1 line $43 per line/4 lines 20GB
* Play More and Do More plans are same price but vary in features. Play More has 720p HD streaming. Do More has 480p HD streaming and 500GB of cloud storage.



Which carriers have the most 5G coverage

5G is here, but it's still evolving and that means growing pains: Wicked-fast networking speeds (sometimes). Coverage that varies block to block. Unexpected switches between 5G and 4G. Large parts of the country -- both urban and rural -- with no 5G at all

Verizon made it possible to upload content -- like photos and videos -- over its faster 5G network. That came to 35 cities in late May, including New York, Los Angeles, Houston and Miami. The carrier plans to expand its super-fast millimeter-wave 5G network to 60 cities in 2020 and plans to launch a lower band nationwide this year as well. 

AT&T now says its 5G network covers over 200 million people and is promising a path for cheaper 5G phones

While T-Mobile and Sprint have merged, the two sides are still in the process of consolidating into a single carrier ("the new T-Mobile"), which should make it a formidable competitor in the 5G space. For now, you can still sign up for a 5G plan from Sprint though that will change on Aug. 2.

If you are getting a Sprint phone you'll want to make sure you're buying a 2020 5G phone to ensure you'll be able to connect to T-Mobile's 5G network. which is going to be the focus going forward. 

For its part, T-Mobile currently has the strongest 5G network among the major carriers both in terms of availability and its capacity to leverage all three flavors of the new wireless technology: low-band (which allows for nationwide coverage), midband (thanks to Sprint, this allows for faster speeds at longer ranges and indoors) and millimeter-wave (though this is only in a handful of cities). 

t-mobile-coverage-map-5g-austin-may312020

T-Mobile's 5G coverage of Austin, Texas on May 31, 2020. 

Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

How to see if 5G is in your area

Ookla is tracking the global rollout of 5G networks through its Speedtest.net service, which you can use to check for yourself whether 5G is -- or isn't -- available in your area. The Speedtest interactive map lets you drill down to the city level to see which companies have deployed 5G.

The map, however, doesn't tell the whole story. As a next step, compare where you live and work or attend school with each carrier's coverage map. If you're frequently near a carrier's hotspots, that might push you to 5G sooner rather than later.

the-full-range-of-the-5g-spectrum-sprint-dd-spectrum-12x-1

The full range of the spectrum assigned for 5G spans under 1 GHz for low-band, to over 24 GHz for higher frequency millimeter-wave.

Sprint

5G: There's more than one kind, and that's important

5G is the fifth-gen wireless networking technology and it has the potential to bring fiber-like speeds over the air to phones, cars, homes and factories. And while 5G promises speeds that will let you download a full-length movie to your phone in seconds, it's not just about the rocket-fast connections. (Check out our full explainer on 5G.)

The wireless standard is designed to significantly reduce network latency (or lag time), letting you play a real-time combat game against other players on your phone, for example, or helping self-driving cars monitor each other on the road (one day).

To create their 5G networks, the major US carriers are using a combination of available spectrum bands and their mix of bands defines the coverage. There are generally three flavors of 5G. The first is "low band," which is efficient and reliable at providing connections over long distances, indoors and out. Most 4G networks use this band, which runs on 600, 700 and 850 MHz frequencies, so you can expect similar coverage to what you get today. But don't expect the insane speeds you've been hearing about as a result of that range.  

To get that, 5G needs to tap into "millimeter-wave" or "mmWave" spectrum, which offers much higher capacity over much shorter distances (that is, ultra-fast speeds over 1Gbps). Think of it as a supercharged Wi-Fi hotspot. 

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Reception has been finicky in our early experience, with walls, glass and even a hand able to block the mmWave signal, though peak speeds have been impressive.

Lastly, there's "midband," which sits in between low and mmWave as a compromise in speed and range while still being able to work indoors. T-Mobile is the only one using midband spectrum thanks to a stash of radio airwaves it purchased with the Sprint deal. Midband currently runs on radio waves below the 6GHz spectrum bands.

A Federal Communications Commission auction is set to make more of this coveted spectrum available, with AT&T and Verizon expected to be active bidders as they work to strengthen their 5G positions. 

5G is making your existing 4G faster, too

The 5G rollout across the US will happen slowly. Apple, for example, is rumored to be launching up to three 5G iPhones in late 2020, partly because of the impact of the coronavirus. One analyst has predicted that sales of 5G phones won't eclipse those of 4G devices till 2023.

In the meantime, 4G LTE networks will continue to carry the wireless load for the mobile carriers, and just as 3G saw us through the transition to 4G, current 4G LTE networks are also slated to get faster as 5G networks build up. 

So even if you're not immediately on 5G, 4G should see some benefit, too.

ookla-5g-coverage-map-may312020

Ookla is tracking the rollout of 5G networks across the US and globe, updating its interactive map weekly. Here's the US's 5G coverage as of May 31, 2020.

Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Another word to the wise: Be aware of unusual claims about 5G coverage. AT&T tried to get ahead of the 5G wave earlier this year, displaying a "5G E" icon on a handful of its 4G phones. Under pressure, the company stepped back from marketing the confusing 5G claim, although it remains an icon on its phones. 

Buy a 5G phone now or wait?

If you don't need a 5G phone at this minute, watch for 5G deals and promotional bundles from your carrier, once 5G goes live in your area. Consider switching carriers, too, if one has a better deal or better coverage in your area when you're ready to move to 5G.

Know that wherever you live -- urban or especially rural -- service most likely won't be widely available for some time. Before you make the move to a 5G phone and service, ask your carrier how you'll know when you're connected to 5G and about its return policy if you're not getting acceptable 5G speeds. You'll often get a 14-day grace period for returns -- make sure you have a backup phone to use if you just want to try 5G out but aren't sure of it. 

Remember, 5G is the technology that will carry us through the next decade, so waiting won't be a bad thing: Costs should come down, a broader selection of phones should come online and coverage will expand. 

Unless you're keen to be an early adopter of 5G, you have little reason to switch over today. The current 5G phones are expensive and tax the device's battery, though prices have started coming down with new devices such as Samsung's Galaxy A71 5G running $600 at AT&T and T-Mobile. You'll most likely pay a premium to hop on a carrier's 5G network, and depending on where you live, you may spend more time on 4G than on 5G, at least at first. 

So how do I choose the best 5G carrier?

We wish there were a straightforward answer, but when there are so many variables to juggle, it's impossible to arrive at a one-size-fits-all conclusion. Your perfect 5G carrier is the one with the phone you want at a price you're willing to pay -- all with an adequate amount of coverage. If you're shopping primarily for the phone and the support for 5G networks just happens to come along with it, lead with your other values -- for example, the family plan or a deal that saves you money. 

If 5G is your standout motivation, then go by the coverage. A map may not tell you how well 5G works in your specific area, which makes evaluating it tricky. If you have the patience, shop around by carrier or community forums -- perhaps one like NextDoor -- to see if you can crowdsource answers about coverage where you live. 

Otherwise, it may be that you adopt the attitude of future-proofing your device. If you believe in 5G and want to be ready to go when the network revs up in your neighborhood, then start with the network that has the strongest current coverage in your area and pick the phone you like most. Carriers are likely to strengthen coverage in an area that already has it faster than launching in a new market and then accelerating its 5G support.

You'll also want to do a bit of homework when it comes to the phone you're looking to buy. Will it support all of the flavors of 5G that your carrier is offering? Should you consider buying a phone that will be able to support other carriers in case you want to switch down the line? These are a few variables to consider. Fortunately, we've done a ton of 5G phone research for you

If it all sounds headache-inducing, that's because it is. But that's the normal price you have to pay to jump into emergent technology. If you don't want to go through the effort yet, take comfort in knowing that 5G will eventually become as commonplace as 4G is today.