MARINA DEL REY, Calif. — If you’ve heard the hype about the new 5G wireless networks, it comes to this: “blazing fast” super speeds, way faster than what we see now on 4G.
The intent is to download movies faster, stream without buffering, pick up mapping information quicker and the like.
Sprint launched 5G Tuesday in major markets: New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Phoenix, but with a twist: It’s not as fast as other forms of 5G.
Sprint’s stat is “6X faster,” to a 20x claim by Verizon.
Sprint, which has agreed to be acquired by T-Mobile but is doing business as usual until the deal actually closes, has a slower version of 5G that connects to existing cell towers, and thus enables Sprint to push 5G service to a wider group of people. Still, Sprint says its a “fully standards compliant 5G network from our existing LTE cell sites.”
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Sprint says it’s covering 2,100 square miles and 11 million people, “more than any other carrier.” The company had already launched Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Kansas City and Chicago earlier this year.
The key is that Verizon and AT&T’s 5G uses a higher frequency that produces higher speeds, but only in limited areas. Sprint is on a lower 5G frequency, “and when you’re at lower frequencies, it travels further, and gets better coverage, but it’s not as fast,” says analyst Bob O’Donnell, president of the TECHnalysis Research firm.
In terms of reach, Verizon says it has 5G available in 10 cities, to 6 for T-Mobile and 9 for Sprint. AT&T is in several markets, but service is only available to corporate customers. Verizon initially put more of the focus on 5G as a cable TV alternative, while Sprint is touting “mobile 5G” and the broader, wider reach of its network.
Sprint’s service in Los Angeles, for instance, reaches from downtown to the sea, while T-Mobile, for instance, says it offers 5G for Los Angeles, but only in pockets.
5G is costly
If you want 5G, you’ll have to pay for the privilege.
Sprint’s lowest-priced monthly plan, at $100 for a family of four, doesn’t qualify, so for 5G it will bump you up the “Unlimited Premium,” at $140 monthly.
Additionally, you will need a phone that works with 5G, and there are only a handful available. Sprint is selling three: the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G ($1,299), OnePlus 7 Pro 5G ($600) and LG VSD Thin Q ($1049).
Apple iPhones don’t work with 5G networks, and the next edition of the iPhone, the iPhone 11, isn’t expected to be 5G capable, with Apple instead waiting for 2020, according to tech analysts. Google Pixels also don’t work with 5G.
In our quick tests of 5G on a Galaxy S10 and the Sprint network, an episode of “The Marvelous Mrs.Maisel” on Amazon Prime took one minute to download, versus five minutes on a wifi Wi-Fi network at a Starbucks. (Our iPhone pushed us to download over wifi.)
More telling was comparing the buffering of streaming video on 5G versus 4G.
We opened a 37-second video clip in Google Photos and found a one-second delay in 5G, vs. versus three seconds in 4G. For a two-minute clip, the delay was two seconds in 5G, versus four seconds in 4G.
But overall, web surfing was nearly identical on both 4G and 5G.
Follow USA TODAY’s Jefferson Graham (@jeffersongraham) on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.