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5G explained: Everything you need to know about the new technology

Joe Supan

Sep 4, 2020 — 5 min read

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If you took every cellphone commercial at face value, you’d think the entire country would be blanketed in blazing-fast 5G speeds by now. While they’ve certainly made progress — 5G is now available in some corners of every major American city — it’s important to remember that we’re still in the early stages of the race. 

A 5G connection is only available around 9% of the time in the U.S. at the moment, and it will likely be years before we see 5G being utilized for much-hyped applications like self-driving cars, IoT devices and mobile gaming. If you want to access 5G speeds right now, you’ll need three things: a 5G phone, a cellphone plan that supports it and proximity to a 5G tower. 

5G cellphone plans

Each of the four major wireless carriers now has 5G networks up and running. If you already have an unlimited data plan, you probably won’t need to upgrade to get 5G access. Most wireless carriers simply include 5G at no extra charge. That said, you’ll still need a 5G phone that can take advantage of those faster networks.

AT&T

AT&T includes access to its 5G network with all of its unlimited data plans, which start at just $65/mo. for one line. It’s currently offering several deals on 5G phones, too, including the Samsung Galaxy A71 5G ($10/mo.), Galaxy A51 5G ($5/mo.) and LG Velvet 5G ($10/mo.). If you’re a new customer looking to switch to AT&T, you can get a new 5G phone and plan for as little as $70/mo. 

T-Mobile

T-Mobile has the cheapest 5G plans from any of the major wireless carriers. And with its merger with Sprint now in the books, its collection of 5G towers has effectively doubled in size. If you want to be sure that you’ll actually be connecting to 5G wireless on your phone, T-Mobile is probably your best bet going forward. It’s currently offering deals on 5G phones like the OnePlus 8 5G, Samsung Galaxy Note20 5G and Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G when you switch to T-Mobile from another carrier. 

Verizon

Verizon was the first cellphone company to launch 5G in the U.S., and it offers the fastest speeds available by far. That said, Verizon’s 5G network is available much less often than AT&T and T-Mobile’s. That could change in the coming years, but for now, it’s relatively scarce. Here is every city that Verizon currently has 5G service:

  • Atlanta
  • Boise
  • Boston
  • Charlotte
  • Chicago
  • Cincinnati
  • Cleveland
  • Columbus
  • Dallas
  • Denver
  • Des Moines
  • Detroit
  • Grand Rapids
  • Greensboro
  • Hampton Roads
  • Hoboken
  • Houston
  • Indianapolis
  • Kansas City
  • Little Rock
  • Los Angeles
  • Memphis
  • Minneapolis
  • New York City
  • Omaha
  • Panama City
  • Phoenix
  • Providence
  • Salt Lake City
  • San Diego
  • San Jose
  • Sioux Falls
  • Spokane
  • St. Paul
  • Washington D.C.

Starting at $80/mo., Verizon’s 5G plans are a little pricier than the competition. Right now, you can get deals on 5G phones like the Samsung Galaxy A51 5G UW ($5/mo.), Samsung Galaxy A71 5G ($10/mo.) and Samsung Galaxy 20+ 5G ($15/mo.) when you switch to Verizon

Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs)

You don’t have to go with one of the big wireless carriers to get access to their 5G networks. Many of the smaller MVNOs that use their cellular towers can also provide a 5G connection. And with DISH’s purchase of Boost Mobile finalized, there will likely be a fourth 5G player in the ring soon. Most of these carriers only offer prepaid plans, meaning you pay for your monthly usage upfront and don’t need a credit check or contract to get service. Here are some of the most popular MVNOs that currently have 5G service.

Which carrier has the best 5G network?

We’re still very early in the race to 5G, but so far, Verizon has the fastest speeds, while T-Mobile has the most widespread 5G coverage. According to Opensignal’s latest analysis, Verizon provides an astounding 494.7 Mbps download speed when connected to its 5G network, compared to just 60.8 Mbps for second-place AT&T. Similarly, Ookla’s tests awarded Verizon a speed score more than 10 times higher than any other carrier. 

That’s because Verizon exclusively uses millimeter wave spectrum, a frequency band capable of providing incredibly fast speeds with enormous capacity. The downside is that it can’t travel as far as mid- and low-band spectrum, and materials like cement can stop its signal — hence Verizon’s limited 5G availability. Opensignal found that Verizon customers only connected to 5G 0.4% of the time, compared to 22.5% for T-Mobile and 10.3% for Sprint.


No matter what carrier you use, 5G is mostly limited to densely populated areas right now. But that will likely change quickly. The FCC just auctioned off the largest number of 5G spectrum licenses in its history, and there are several more on the horizon. It also plans to make rural 5G connectivity a priority, particularly with fixed wireless connections. Over the next few years, 5G wireless will become much more widely available no matter which carrier you’re using. 

Is 5G dangerous?

5G has had a huge amount of hype for its super-fast speeds, but there have also been plenty of questions about its safety. The concern is primarily aimed at millimeter wave frequencies, which require cell towers every half mile or so, thus exposing more people to its radiation than traditional cellphone towers. 

But most scientists agree that these higher frequencies are actually safer than the lower ones that cellphones have used for decades (with extremely high frequencies like X-rays being an exception). That’s because the skin is actually better at shielding our internal organs from those high frequencies. “It doesn’t penetrate,” Christopher M. Collins, a professor of radiology at New York University, told The New York Times

Not everyone is quite so sanguine. In a Scientific American article titled “We Have No Reason to Believe 5G Is Safe,” the author writes, “The research suggests that long-term exposure may pose health risks to the skin (e.g., melanoma), the eyes (e.g., ocular melanoma) and the testes (e.g., sterility).” 

But this is far from the consensus view among the scientific community, including the World Health Organization, which states plainly that studies “have not provided evidence that radiofrequency exposure from the transmitters increases the risk of cancer.” This has been a concern for as long as cellphones have been around, but brain cancer rates have actually been declining for two decades, despite the fact that we’ve been holding phones to our heads for most of them. 

“By and large, the research is reassuring about there not being — certainly not a major problem, perhaps no problem at all in terms of adverse health effects,” epidemiologist David Savitz told The Atlantic

Joe Supan

Written by:

Joe Supan

Sr. Staff Writer

Joe oversees all things wireless and streaming for Allconnect, from music services to live TV sites. His streaming service reviews are among the most popular articles on the entire site. … Read more