Sprint announced in February that it would flip the switch on its 5G service in May in four cities. And with one day to go in the month, Sprint made good on that promise, turning on service in Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Kansas City.
There's new hardware, too. Sprint's first 5G phone, the LG's V50 ThinQ 5G smartphone, is now on sale, along with HTC's 5G Hub, a home hotspot. Later this month, Samsung's Galaxy S10 5G joins the 5G-ready products available for Sprint's network. Five other markets will add 5G service soon.
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 now offer 5G coverage on Sprint's network. Later in the year, the carrier expects to add Chicago Los Angeles, New York City, Phoenix and Washington D.C., shortly, though there's no concrete date.
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 has technically beaten Sprint to the 5G punch in Chicago and Minneapolis, 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.
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. Now that Sprint's 5G network is live, it will be interesting to see how it compares with Verizon’s service, albeit in different cities. (Stay tuned for our preliminary test results.)
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.
First 5G Phones
Starting June 21, you'll have a choice of which 5G phone to use with Sprint's network. The company already sells the LG V50 ThinQ, which costs $1,152 at Sprint, though if you lease the phone, you'll pay $24 a month for 18 months. (That's a discount from Sprint's normal lease price.)
The Samsung Galaxy S10 5G — originally a Verizon exclusive — joins Sprint's roster on June 21. It will cost $1,299 at Sprint, just like the 256 model does at Verizon, though people who pre-order and get a Sprint Flex least can enjoy a $250 discount that brings their monthly payment down to $40.28 a month.
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.
Note that these devices are only on sale in markets where Sprint has turned on its 5G network.
What You’ll Pay For Sprint 5G
LG V50 ThinQ 5G and Galaxy S10 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. (That's only for Verizon's $85 and $95 unlimited plans, though.) 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 will expand its roster of 5G cities through the remainder of 2019. 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.
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 need one of AT&T’s 5G Netgear hotspots to get in on the action. (Like Sprint, AT&T is adding the Galaxy S10 5G to its network, but only for corporate customers.) Before the end of the year, the network will reportedly add another nine markets.
Finally, T-Mobile hasn’t revealed its 5G coverage map to the public quite yet, though we do know it’s building out its low-band spectrum in preparation. 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 mmWave tech.