The best 5G network will have a good balance of speed and coverage with room to grow and added capacity as 5G adoption increases. 5G connectivity is now available to hundreds of millions of people in the U.S. thanks to improved support from phone makers and sub-6 5G networks. AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon all now offer 5G coverage with sub-6 and mmWave. While AT&T and Verizon anxiously await their expensive C-band spectrum release, T-Mobile has the best overall 5G network thanks to its wide sub-6 at both 600MHz and 2.5GHz coverage with room to grow with mmWave and C-band spectrum in the coming years.
Best overall: T-Mobile
Tons of spectrum potential
T-Mobile's 5G network covers more than 305 million people in the U.S., including a lot of coverage in rural areas. This is mostly thanks to T-Mobile's low-band 600Mhz (n71) spectrum, which offers excellent coverage and speeds comparable to fast LTE. T-Mobile is also improving its 5G network with Sprint's mid-band 2.5GHz (n41) spectrum in addition to its own mmWave spectrum.
T-Mobile started with its 600MHz spectrum to quickly cover as many people as possible with a few spots of mmWave in urban areas. Then, with its purchase of Sprint, T-Mobile has been working quickly to add Sprint's 2.5GHz spectrum to its 5G network, which has much greater capacity for higher speed and more connections. This mid-band network now covers more than 165 million people. Finally, C-band will be used in key locations that need a bit more capacity once it becomes available in late 2021 and 2022.
With this setup, T-Mobile can achieve greater capacity in dense urban areas while offering strong coverage in suburban and rural areas. You can check out T-Mobile's 5G coverage if you want to see if it's in your area, and if you have a phone compatible with its sub-6 5G, you'll be covered by the majority of the network. While it remains to be seen exactly how much T-Mobile will utilize mmWave in the coming years, its huge sub-6 advantage means T-Mobile can focus on developing its network rather than scrambling to catch up.
With T-Mobile and its prepaid carriers, there are no plan requirements for 5G connectivity, allowing T-Mobile to offer some of the best cell phone plans for 5G. You need a phone capable of connecting to T-Mobile's band n71 and band n41. Luckily, this includes most of the best Android phones being sold, such as the Galaxy S21 series and the Pixel 5.
Best mmWave: Verizon Wireless
Speed is the top priority
One of Verizon's most significant strengths for years has been its massive LTE network, and even with 5G hype growing, that's the network most Verizon customers will be using for quite a while. Verizon has been catching up with its DSS sub-6 5G network since its launch in late 2020, but it's still the smallest of the bunch. Verizon started out building a mmWave 5G network it calls Ultra-Wideband (UWB), and while it's certainly the most impressive mmWave network around, its coverage leaves a lot to be desired. Once Verizon is allowed to deploy its C-band spectrum, this will get better. But for now, UWB is still just mmWave.
Keep in mind that UWB is only available on the top unlimited plans with a compatible phone. It's nice that if you're using UWB, you don't have any data or speed caps of any kind compared to sub-6. Verizon's sub-6 5G network, referred to as Nationwide 5G, is the newest major sub-6 network in the country, but it has been making great strides to catch up to AT&T and T-Mobile. Still, it's sharing spectrum with its LTE network, meaning that most of the time, it won't be significantly faster than LTE and may even fall behind a well-developed LTE network.
Still, it's nice that Verizon is developing a 5G solution both for mmWave in urban areas with coverage options for the rest of us. Verizon's UWB network is a huge investment and will take a long time to build but can lead to great advancements in connectivity, especially in areas with poor wired service.
Great potential: AT&T
Sub-6 and mmWave working together
AT&T started by building one of the largest mmWave 5G networks around, but at the end of 2019, AT&T began rolling out its sub-6 850MHz sub-6 network to make some real headway on coverage. AT&T uses Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) to beef up its 5G network by sharing spectrum with its LTE network. For now, most AT&T customers connecting to 5G will be using the 850MHz spectrum.
AT&T has been swift to adapt its network where needed with a combination of dedicated 5G bands, DSS, and mmWave where appropriate. C-band 5G is coming in late 2021 to help bridge the gap between AT&T's low-band and high-band 5G signals. Not only that, but AT&T's 4G LTE network is one of the fastest around, especially where it's fully developed. Still, AT&T's 5G network is impressive thanks to its rapid growth, and its robust LTE network is nice to have as a fallback.
Customers with compatible phones and a plan that supports 5G can access both networks for improved speeds. Most AT&T unlimited plans support Nationwide 5G with a compatible phone, but few smaller data plans do not. AT&T also has fewer prepaid 5G options than T-Mobile, and those that support it like Cricket require an expensive plan to use it. It's worth keeping in mind that AT&T has taken to calling its advanced LTE network 5GE on some older phones. This does not mean you are connected to 5G in any way and means you are connected to the best of 4G LTE.
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AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon have sub-6 and mmWave networks with varying 5G coverage. T-Mobile took an early lead in 5G coverage thanks to its low-band spectrum, but AT&T wasn't too far behind with its own low-band network. While AT&T spent more time focusing on mmWave, it's still managing to keep up with T-Mobile's pace with rapid expansion. Verizon was the last to deploy sub-6 5G but had been making solid progress with the network. AT&T and Verizon won't truly catch up with T-Mobile until they can start using the C-band spectrum.
T-Mobile bet the farm on 5G, and it seems to be paying off. No matter how you look at it, T-Mobile has the best 5G coverage with the most sub-6 spectrum ready for deployment. When it comes to 5G, T-Mobile easily has the best cell phone plans with Magenta and Magenta Max. While AT&T and Verizon are making rapid progress trying to catch up, T-Mobile's great low-band spectrum gave it a significant lead, and T-Mobile has kept up its lead thanks to its own high-band mmWave spectrum and the mid-band spectrum it got from its purchase of Sprint. With all of these elements, T-Mobile is poised to hold onto its 5G lead, and it has the spectrum to keep up expansion.
Credits — The team that worked on this guide
Samuel Contreras When Samuel is not writing about networking, he spends most of his time researching computer components and obsessing over what CPU goes into the ultimate Windows 98 computer. It's the Pentium 3.
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When Samuel is not writing about networking or 5G at Android Central, he spends most of his time researching computer components and obsessing over what CPU goes into the ultimate Windows 98 computer. It's the Pentium 3.