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Verizon vs AT&T vs T-Mobile vs Sprint: Choose the best 5G carrier

Cost, phone, speed and coverage. 5G is the new Wild West.

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AT&T's 5G network on a Galaxy S10 5G phone.

Logan Moy/CNET

5G is coming to your town. Starting this spring, first Verizon and then AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile began rolling out 5G networks, dotting the US -- from Minneapolis to Dallas and New York to Los Angeles -- with 5G speeds and faster wireless connections.

Depending on where you live, you may not see a 5G network for a while, especially if you're more rural than urban. And even when 5G does come to your area, coverage zones may be small and the reception may be iffy. But when the time comes, you'll need to know which carrier gives you the most for your money.

5G goes global: We tested 5G speeds around the world

5G is the much-anticipated fifth-generation wireless networking technology that 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. 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.

To create their 5G networks, the four major US carriers are using a combination of available spectrum bands, and their mix of bands defines the coverage. On one side is "sub-6," which is extremely efficient and reliable at providing connections over long distances, indoors and out. Sub-6 currently runs over 2.5GHz to 6GHz spectrum bands.

Over on the other side, 5G can also refer to "millimeter wave," or "mmWave", which offers much higher capacity over much shorter distances (that is, ultra-fast speeds over 1Gbps). Reception can be finicky, with walls, glass and even a hand able to block the mmWave signal. mmWave uses spectrum bands above 24GHz.

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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, you'll most likely pay a premium to hop on a carrier's 5G network, and unless you're near a 5G node, you may spend more time on 4G than on 5G, at least at first. 

But 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.

Cost: 5G phones and plans aren't cheap

These are the early days of 5G, and the major carriers are starting to unveil their plans and phones. Over the next year, we'll see more 5G phones, and the carriers will adjust their plans. But right now, here's what we have. (You can see how Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile's 5G plans stack up in the chart below.)

5G phones right now aren't cheap, with most devices well above above $1,000. The Galaxy S10 5G, for example, is $1,300. You can also buy the LG V50 ThinQ for $1,222. But you can find deals, like the Motorola Moto Z4 phone and required Moto Mod accessory currently priced at $440, but those are more of the exception. Outside of the US, options include the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G and Oppo Reno 5G.

If the price of a 5G phone seems steep, you can pay month by month instead of buying the phone up front. But the downside, as with any phone, is you may still be 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 Cities with live 5G Other fees
Verizon Beyond Limited $85 for 1 line $50 per line for 4 lines Unlimited for 5G 10
$10 a month access fee, currently waived
Verizon Above Limited $95 for 1 line $60 per line for 4 lines Unlimited for 5G 10
$10 a month access fee, currently waived
AT&T Business Unlimited Perferred* $90 for 1 line $165/2 lines to $490 for 10 lines 20 GB 21 (hotspot only) $25 a month per phone; $150 for mobile hotspot
Sprint Unlimited Premium $80 for 1 line $140 for 2 lines to $200 for 5 lines 100 GB 9

T-Mobile Essentials $30 for 1 line $30 per line for 4 lines Unlimited for 3G 6
T-Mobile Magenta $40 for 1 line $40 per line for 4 lines 3GB for 4G 6
T-Mobile Magenta Plus $50 for 1 line $50 per line for 4 lines 20GB for 4G 6
* AT&T's 5G network is for business; no public date for consumer access.




The phone isn't the only thing you'll pay a premium for. Carriers may put you and your 5G phone into one of their upper-tier plans, so expect to pay for unlimited data. On Verizon, for example, a 5G plan starts at $85 for a single line, and although the carrier has temporarily waived its $10 monthly add-on fee for 5G service, expect it to come into effect down the line. That alone is an extra $120 per year that you're paying just to use 5G.

Another possible cost: If you're paying month to month for your current phone, you'll have to pay it off completely before making the switch, unless a promotional deal offers to make up the difference to get you to switch. You maybe also be able to offset that expense by trading in your phone or reselling it.

One more expense: if your plan has data cap, you can use up a good part of your 5G data allotment in a less than an hour, like we did in Australia, where an editor ate up half of his monthly data plan in 25 minutes downloading a game and several movies over a 5G network he was testing.

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The full range of the spectrum assigned for 5G spans under 1 GHz to over 24 GHz.

Sprint

And something to keep an eye on: Sprint is live with 5G in nine cities, but a potential bump for Sprint's -- and T-Mobile's -- 5G rollout is the pending merger of the two companies. The merger could give the newly combined company and its merged network a running start at 5G.

Coverage: What can you expect today from 5G

Wicked-fast networking speeds. 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. 5G is here, but just barely.

The four major carriers are slowly lighting up 5G networks in two dozen or so cities across the US, but each is taking a different approach to its rollout, from Verizon providing tiny pockets of 5G coverage in four cities to AT&T looking to 5G hotspots that create wireless 5G networks.

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A map of Atlanta, showing T-Mobile's 5G coverage.

T-Mobile

To check for yourself whether 5G is -- or isn't -- available in your area, Ookla is tracking the global rollout of 5G networks through its Speedtest.net service. 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.

ookla5gus-map

Ookla is tracking the rollout of 5G networks across the US and globe, updating its interactive map weekly.

Ookla

The current 4G data network will get faster, too

The 5G rollout across the US will happen slowly. Apple, for example, is rumored not to be launching a 5G phone until 2020 at the earliest. One analyst predicts sales of 5G phones won't eclipse those of 4G devices till 2023. And T-Mobile is marking 2024 as the year it all comes together.

In the meantime, 4G networks will continue to carry the wireless load for the mobile carriers, just as 3G saw us through the transition to 4G. 4G 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.

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 the confusing 5G claim and is rolling out 5G service in parts of 20 cities via hotspots.

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Get on 5G 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. 

Whether you decide to jump in now or wait, check back here -- we'll keep updating this as new 5G phones come in and as mobile carriers improve their coverage and tweak their data plans to meet demand.

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