Sprint's 5G network solves a coverage problem but lacks Verizon's ridiculous top speeds

Sprint 5G test in Chicago
Sprint 5G test in Chicago (Image credit: Android Central)

Over the last few months, Verizon has gotten almost all of the press surrounding real-world 5G tests in America. I've tested Big Red's Ultra Wideband 5G network in Chicago twice over the last few months, and while the second visit yielded far more impressive results than the first, one huge problem persisted through both tests: the millimeter wave technology Verizon uses for its 5G network, while incredibly fast, has very short range.

Sprint is the first carrier in the U.S. to implement sub-6, rather than millimeter wave.

This means that even though I saw Ookla speed test results in the neighborhood of 1.5 Gbps while in close proximity of a 5G node (typically between 100 and 300 feet away), that signal would quickly degrade or even drop out entirely once I started moving away. To solve this range issue, Verizon is going to need to implement a lot of 5G nodes throughout the city (and every city in which it plans to launch).

That's where Sprint comes in. Chicago is one of Sprint's largest markets, so it makes sense that the Windy City is one of the company's first 5G test areas. Sprint's biggest differentiator against Verizon and other 5G competitors is that it's the only carrier in the U.S. that's implementing mid-band sub-6, rather than mmWave.

Specifically, Sprint is deploying 5G over its excess 2.5GHz spectrum — the fastest of the three bands the company uses for its LTE network. This makes 5G amazingly cost-effective and easy to deploy; rather than installing entirely new hardware, Sprint is simply outfitting its existing towers with Massive MIMO equipment containing 128 antennae, divided evenly between 5G and 4G LTE. During my visit, Sprint said that its 5G network was already able to cover approximately 700,000 people.

Explaining 5G: Millimeter wave, sub-6, low-band and other terms you need to know

So what's the benefit of sub-6 in the real world? In a sense, it's the polar opposite of mmWave, which offers blisteringly fast speeds but suffers from a poor range. Right now, you won't get gigabit speeds on sub-6 — with Sprint's internal tests averaging at 328 Mbps with peak spikes of around 800 Mbps — but its signals travel much further. I've been told to expect close to a kilometer of range from each tower in Chicago, with some towers in Dallas, Texas reportedly reaching twice that distance.

Should the long-negotiated merger go through, Sprint is hoping to combine its 2.5GHz spectrum with T-Mobile's 600MHz low-band and mmWave high-band spectrums to offer massive 5G coverage under the New T-Mobile, even in rural areas.

Real-world testing

Sprint loaned me a Galaxy S10 5G to test out its 5G network across Chicago, along with a list of addresses mapping out the locations of each tower. Those locations ranged across popular spots like Merchandise Mart, Navy Pier, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and even as far west as the United Center Arena — but my favorite part of my field test is that I never needed to refer to the map.

The best part about Sprint's 5G is not having to hunt for it.

Walking around River North, there was no hunting around for a 5G signal; it was consistently just there, a dramatic improvement over my previous tests with Verizon. This is by far the biggest advantage of sub-6, and these tests marked the first time 5G has ever felt truly ready for consumers — at least, to me.

Once again, speed and latency suffer to achieve that range, since 2.5GHz doesn't travel as quickly as the high-band frequencies used by other 5G networks, and in my testing, I saw speeds around 150-200 Mbps on average. Closer to my starting point at the Magnificent Mile on Michigan Ave, I exceeded 300 Mbps quite a few times, while closer to Millennium Park I averaged about 150.

Those speeds may feel paltry when compared to the 1.5 Gbps I reached on Verizon's mmWave network, but the fact of the matter is that even 130 Mbps is far faster than most people typically see on 4G LTE — though admittedly, my colleague Sam Contreras and I were able to exceed it a few times over LTE during stops on the drive over from Indianapolis, with both AT&T and Sprint.

Sub-6 5G is also less susceptible to interference from objects like buildings, tinted glass, and trees. While testing outside one of my favorite coffee shops in Chicago, Intelligentsia off of Randolph Street, I was able to reach over 160 Mbps, while walking inside resulted in only a 20% degradation in speed.

That said, I wasn't able to get quite the same practical use from those speeds that Sprint claimed. Downloading an episode of Stranger Things 3 from Netflix — whose servers should be optimized for the 5G network — took just over a minute, rather than the mere seconds I was told to expect (yes, I'm well aware that complaining about having to wait more than 60 seconds for a high-quality, hour-long video is a bit ridiculous).

Same thing went for downloading shows and movies from Hulu, though I didn't get a chance to try downloading any apps from Samsung's Galaxy Store, which I'm told is also optimized for maximum speeds over 5G.

Is Sprint's 5G worth it?

Here's the good news: Sprint's 5G network isn't just more spread out than Verizon's, it's more aggressively priced. While Verizon plans to eventually add a $10 surcharge to the monthly bills of its 5G customers, Sprint is offering 5G at no additional cost on its Unlimited Premium plan, which offers unlimited data and 100GB of mobile hotspot along with premium memberships to services like Hulu, Amazon Prime, Tidal, and Twitch.

This means that the only entry point to using Sprint's 5G network — aside from living in one of its early test markets — is getting a 5G-capable device. At the moment, that list includes the Galaxy S10 5G, LG V50, or the HTC 5G Hub, all of which utilize Qualcomm's X50 5G modem. The X50 has support for both Sprint's and T-Mobile's 5G networks, so if/when the carriers finally merge, Sprint says you shouldn't need to buy a new device again, which is more great news. (Whether prices stay low if/when the carriers merge, however, is a topic of heavy debate.)

Sprint may not have the fastest 5G network around, but holding a consistent 5G connection all throughout River North was an entirely new experience for me, and it's one that I can't wait to see more of. If you live in the area and you've been considering a 5G phone anyway, there's really no reason not to try it out — just keep in mind that those phones are pricey, but such is the cost of living on the bleeding edge of technology.

Hayato Huseman

Hayato was a product reviewer and video editor for Android Central.