Sprint is launching its 5G network in Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, and Kansas City today, becoming the third major US operator to kick off the next era of mobile data. “This is probably going to be the largest initial 5G launch in terms of coverage and footprint,” Sprint CTO John Saw told reporters gathered in Dallas this morning. In this particular city, Sprint’s 5G launch footprint covers 575 square miles and approximately 1.6 million people. “This is just the beginning,” Saw said. Sprint is offering up a coverage map of where customers can expect 5G signal at launch, something that its competitors haven’t yet done.
But for Sprint, 5G is about a lot more than coverage: it’s about dependability. Rivals Verizon and AT&T have concentrated their launch 5G efforts on millimeter-wave technology, which delivers truly next-level data speeds that can exceed 1Gbps — but with the trade-off of extremely spotty coverage.
In Verizon’s case, coverage is strong when you’re in close proximity to one of its 5G nodes, but quickly drops off as you move away and disappears entirely once the node is out of sight. Indoor coverage is also essentially nonexistent, with Verizon falling back to LTE speeds since windows and walls are enough to defeat millimeter wave. Sprint executives today described Verizon’s current setup as a “hotspot 5G network,” which is a pretty brutal burn.
By contrast, Sprint is using what it calls “split mode” to allow devices to combine 5G NR and LTE Advanced for faster download speeds and, more importantly, 5G coverage that’s somewhat consistent. Sprint isn’t relying on the same high-frequency millimeter-wave tech as Verizon and AT&T at the moment. Instead, it’s building 5G on top of its mid-band 2.5GHz wireless spectrum. According to Saw, Sprint’s antennas in 5G markets are divided with dedicated LTE and 5G resources. “We are not sharing spectrum. We’re not stealing bandwidth from LTE users, and you don’t see a slowdown in 5G just because LTE customers are using a lot of data.” Saw insists this is something that isn’t possible with millimeter wave alone. “I think we’re the only operator in the US that’s able to launch our 5G network to have the exact same coverage as LTE, right on top of each other.”
But how fast is it? Sprint’s promise is up to five times faster than LTE. “We’re trying to set the right expectations,” said Saw. “You should see more than 100Mbps when you’re driving around.” Sprint drove media around for a short two-mile bus trip to demonstrate mobile speeds. The new LG V50 indeed remained above that 100Mbps mark throughout the test, and it never dropped Sprint’s 5G network during the drive. Peak speeds hit between 500Mbps and 600Mbps when we stopped and were stationary. But Sprint is definitely being conservative in its guidance and reiterating that this is day one and improvements will come early and often.
Still, some people are inevitably going to be underwhelmed by those peak speeds. “That’s barely better than what I get now,” is an easy criticism, but you’ve also got to think about real-world speeds versus advertised or theoretical performance. Sprint says its LTE customers typically get around 30Mbps.
Sprint claims it will cover approximately 11.5 million people once it completes the rollout of its initial 5G launch in these cities:
- Atlanta (available now) 150 square miles, approx. 565,000 people
- Chicago (coming soon)
- Dallas-Fort Worth (available now) 575 square miles, approx. 1.6 million people
- Houston (available now) 165 square miles, approx. 800,000 people
- Kansas City (available now) 225 square miles, approx. 625,000 people
- Los Angeles (coming soon)
- New York City (coming soon)
- Phoenix (coming soon)
The carrier’s first two 5G-compatible devices are the LG V50 and the HTC 5G Hub, both of which go on sale May 31st. The V50 has a 6.4-inch OLED screen and similar specs to the G8, but the thing you really need to know is that it also has a 5G logo on the back that lights up yellow, which seems appropriately over the top for a first-wave 5G phone. The 5G Hub is an odd little device that primarily serves as a Wi-Fi and Ethernet hotspot. It supports up to 20 simultaneous device connections. But the Hub also runs Android 9 Pie on its 5-inch 720p display, has Google Assistant built in, and according to Sprint, offers a wealth of possibilities for streaming 4K content and games to your TV screen. Sprint says the Galaxy S10 5G will follow these devices sometime this summer once its Verizon exclusivity wraps up.
When Saw was speaking to journalists, he likened the ideal 5G network structure to a wedding cake. High-frequency millimeter wave will deliver the mind-blowing peak speeds I saw with Verizon in Chicago. Mid-band 2.5GHz spectrum will make 5G coverage more reliable and steady. And low-band “sub-6” spectrum will be crucial for making sure 5G can strongly reach indoor locations and challenging coverage spots. As you’d expect, he brought up the T-Mobile merger as being essential, since that company possesses a lot of low-band spectrum that would complement Sprint’s own.