Updated, Oct. 22: We've inserted additional information about Sprint's 5G availability.
Sprint's 5G network is ramping up. After ending May with the launch of service in Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Kansas City, Sprint's network expanded to additional markets, with nine cities now boasting some 5G coverage.
The number of phones that can connect with Sprint's new network has grown, too.After the LG's V50 ThinQ 5G smartphone became the first 5G phone to work on Sprint's network, the wireless carrier started selling the Galaxy S10 5G in June while adding the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G in August. And if you need a home hotspot that can connect to the faster network, there's HTC's 5G Hub.
However, there’s much more to Sprint’s 5G strategy than when and where it’s going live, and what devices you can use on it. As it happens, the Now Network is attacking 5G in a very different manner than Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T. Here’s everything you need to know about Sprint’s 5G plans.
Sprint 5G Cities: Where You Can Get It First
Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Kansas City were the first to get 5G coverage from Sprint, with Chicago joining the party in July. On Aug. 27, Los Angeles, New York City, Phoenix and Washington D.C., joined Sprint's 5G party.
If you subscribe to Google Fi, you likely know that Sprint is one of the three networks Fi relies on to form the backbone of its coverage map. As such, Sprint has confirmed that Fi customers will get access to the its 5G network in the future — though again, specifics on when that will be are quite murky at this time.
Although Verizon technically beat Sprint to the 5G punch in cities like Chicago, Verizon has been clear that its coverage at this time doesn’t blanket the entirety, or even majority, of those cities. In Chicago, for example, the carrier’s 5G zones are currently concentrated around tourist attractions in the West and South loops. Sprint's 5G coverage doesn't extend to every corner of the nine cities it's launched in, either, but its footprint is larger than some of its rivals. And even after launching in those nine cities, Sprint said in October that it's added additional neighborhoods, further extending 5G availability to an estimated 16 million people.
This could be a critical point of differentiation between Verizon and Sprint’s 5G approaches, because Sprint is promising the “first real mobile 5G in the U.S. with real devices with real coverage.” That was the declaration that Michael Combes, Sprint’s CEO, made at Mobile World Congress back in February.
How Fast Will Sprint’s 5G Be?
This question highlights the fundamental difference between Sprint’s 5G service and everyone else’s — and unfortunately, it’s not a difference that totally works to the carrier’s favor.
Sprint is devoting excess supply of its mid-band spectrum to 5G, rather than using millimeter wave (mmWave) as Verizon and others are doing. And it’s mmWave that will ultimately bring the 1Gbps-plus speeds and imperceptible latency that carriers have been promising us 5G would deliver for the last several years.
That said, Sprint’s 2.5GHz-based 5G service will still be faster than LTE. To get it up and running, the carrier is augmenting its LTE deployment with Massive MIMO antennas to support 5G as well. This strategy doesn’t require quite the same investment in new technologies as mmWave 5G, so it allows Sprint to move a bit more swiftly in bringing 5G to its customers. Mid-band spectrum also reaches farther than mmWave, which is likely how Sprint can justify its “real coverage” claims.
The downside to this tactic, however, will be slower speeds out of the gate. At Sprint's 5G launch event in Dallas, John Saw, Sprint’s chief technology officer, said that while gigabit speeds were possible, the reality is that download speeds will be closer to hundreds of megabits per second.
"We want to set the right expectations. You should see more than 100 MBps when you’re driving around with your phone," said Saw.
When we tested Sprint's 5G network in Dallas using an LG V50, we saw speeds between 300 Mbps and 600 Mbps, and we enjoyed some fast download speeds for apps and videos for the most part. Verizon's 5G network hit faster speeds (we used a Galaxy S10 5G in those tests), but we found it easier to stay connected to Sprint's network.
We observed the same thing in Chicago, the first city where we can test 5G networks head-to-head since Sprint and Verizon have both flipped the switch on 5G in the Windy City. Our July testing found that Verizon produced much faster speeds — we hit 700 Mbps on a Verizon phone on the same corner where a Galaxy S10 5G on Sprint's network topped out at 205 Mbps. Downloading apps and videos showed similar performance gaps.
But when we wandered around Chicago, the 5G icon remained in the status bar more consistently on Sprint's phone. Coverage remains sporadic for Verizon. Sprint's hoping that extending coverage will satisfy customers for now, with faster speeds coming later.
Sprint's first 5G phones
You have a choice of which 5G phone to use with Sprint's network. The company sells the LG V50 ThinQ, which costs $1,152 at Sprint, though if you lease the phone, you'll pay $19 a month for 18 months. (That's a discount from Sprint's normal lease price.) The Samsung Galaxy S10 5G — originally a Verizon exclusive — joined Sprint's roster in June. The phone costs the same $1,299 that Verizon charges, but if you opt for an 18-month Sprint Flex lease, you'll pay $40.28 a month, saving $250.
Recently, Sprint added a third 5G phone — the $840 OnePlus 7 Pro 5G. This phone is essentially the phone OnePlus released this spring with a 5G modem included. Sign up for an 18-month lease, and you can pay $20 a month for the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G, a $15 discount off the regular lease price.
In addition to those phones, Sprint sells a a third device manufactured by HTC. Called the 5G Hub, this product is more reminiscent of a hotspot with some extra features. There’s a 5-inch full-HD display on board, as well as stereo speakers and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 processor running Android.
The 855 chip is the very same silicon found inside Sprint’s two 5G-ready phones, and HTC tells us you’ll be able to use that power to output games and media to an external display, or use your 5G Hub as a makeshift smart speaker. And of course, the Hub can share its 5G signal with up to 20 devices.
The Hub costs $600 if you buy it outright, or $25 a month on a 24-month payment plan.
What you'll pay for 5G speeds at Sprint
LG V50 ThinQ 5G, Galaxy S10 5G and OnePlus 7 Pro 5G buyers will have to activate those phones on Sprint's $80/month Unlimited Premium plan. An additional line is $60/month, and any line after two is $20/month. (That's a discounted price on those extra lines, since the third, fourth and fifth lines typically cost $40 each on Sprint's Unlimited Premium plan.)
Meanwhile, 100GB of data for the 5G Hub will run you $60/month. Data will slow to 2G speeds after 100GB.
That's more in line with unlimited plan pricing from Sprint's rivals — and Sprint’s current unlimited plan doesn’t even rank among our favorites on the market today. At $60 a month, it’s certainly one of the cheapest, though it does carry with it limitations on traffic for certain use cases, like video and music streaming, as well as gaming.
For a little perspective, Verizon is tacking on a 5G premium of $10 per month to its existing unlimited plans (though it's waiving that fee for now on its $70 and $80 unlimited plans). And for what it’s worth, while all four major carriers typically throttle traffic after a certain point on unlimited plans, Verizon is holding off from deprioritizing 5G early adopters — for now, anyway.
Sprint vs. Other Carriers
Verizon has continued to expand its roster of 5G cities. The carrier is hoping to light up towers in as many as 30 markets in that time, albeit in much the same fashion as it brought 5G to Chicago and Minneapolis — select areas within cities first, before full coverage much later. As of this writing, Verizon is in more than a dozen cities.
AT&T serves 12 U.S. cities with 5G right now (and no, we’re not talking about its fake 5G Evolution branding exercise). However, you’ll either need one of AT&T’s 5G Netgear hotspots or a Galaxy S10 5G to get in on the action. AT&T is only making those devices to select customers at this time.
T-Mobile was the last of the Big Four carriers to open its 5G network to the public, launching in six cities at the end of June. Initially, T-Mobile is using millimeter wave, but it’s also building out its low-band spectrum for further 5G expansion. Low-band will offer slower speeds than Sprint’s mid-band deployment, though it’ll reach even farther and should be even better at penetrating physical obstructions, which cannot be said for the faster-but-spottier millimeter wave tech.
T-Mobile's plans are of particular interest to Sprint, and vice versa: the two carriers are planning to merge and have cleared some of the biggest regulatory hurdles. One of the main arguments in favor of green-lighting the combination of the two carriers was that it would speed up 5G expansion. We'll see how that pans out once the merger officially goes through.