There’s no question about it, 5G is the buzzword of 2020 when it comes to cell phone companies. Most of the major providers have launched 5G in some form in 2019 and we expect to see all of them grow those new, faster networks in 2020 . T-Mobile turned on their 5G at the end of 2019 but with a different tactic than some of their competitors. I took the T-Mobile 5G network for a test in the Denver area using their new OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren Android phone.
What makes it different?
I want to start by explain how T-Mobile's approach is different. The graphic shows the 3 different types of 5G network technologies. The millimeter wave band is the fastest. Speeds are insane. Problem is, it also covers the smallest amount of area and doesn't work well indoors. Verizon started building their 5G network in Denver using this tech. It works great, when it works. There are only small pockets in Downtown Denver where you'll actually get this 5G signal on Verizon. They plan to continue that build-out but also add mid and low band coverage as well. Mid coverage has a larger coverage area but speeds aren't as fast as millimeter wave while low band coverage provides the largest coverage area but also the smallest bump in speeds from 4G.
T-Mobile is taking a different approach but launching low band coverage first and then hoping to add mid and millimeter coverage down the line. This means that T-Mobile's 5G network will work in a lot of places but won't be as fast as 5G from other carriers yet. T-Mobile says most users should see about a 20% bump in speeds.
So... how did it work?
Overall I think the 5G network on T-Mobile worked pretty well in my testing. I have to preface this by saying that my experience with T-Mobile in the Denver metro has been pretty impressive even when using a normal 4G phone. The 5G testing only seemed to amplify those speeds and in most cases I saw that 20% bump that T-Mobile promised. In a few locations I actually managed to get a faster speed test on a 4G phone than the 5G phone. I'm not sure if this was an anomaly but it happened a few times during my testing.
Something that I noticed is that the ping time was significantly lower (a good thing) on the 5G network. This is the amount of time it takes for your internet request to go from your phone, into the internet and then return back to your phone. This is very important for things like video games, video chatting and other tasks that require zippy response times.
Castle Rock, we have a problem?
I'd be remiss if I didn't take a second to point out some serious problems I experienced in the Castle Rock area while testing out 5G. Speeds CRAWLED on both a 4G and 5G T-Mobile phone in the Founders/I25 area during the afternoon. Almost unusable. This was surprising since T-Mobile's network was wicked fast in almost every other spot I tested it. I asked some T-Mobile users who live in Castle Rock and they confirmed that they deal with slow speeds near I25. I'm not sure what's going on, perhaps the Rock is growing faster than T-Mobile can build towers, but it wasn't a great experience.
This is a tough question. I like T-Mobile's approach of building out the low band network first. While this may have something to do with the spectrum that they do and don't have access to I do think it makes more sense. Get 5G in the hands of more people right away and then slowly improve the network and those speeds. Frankly, I'm not convinced that most of us need 5G on our phones. 4G speeds on a good network are already crazy fast and work great for almost anything most of us do.
I would say, if you have an option to grab a 5G phone and you're on the T-Mobile network, go for it! Why not? They're not charging anything extra to use 5G and you will see a bump in speeds. The T-Mobile network in most spots is already pretty impressive and fast and this only makes it better. If you grab a 5G phone now you'll be ready as they grow and improve the 5G network.
Personally, I can't wait to see where we are in a 1 year or 2 from now. If the T-Mobile/Sprint merger goes through it's expected to give T-Mobile a bunch of spectrum that they can use to improve 5G coverage and speeds.