5G bands cheat sheet: Verizon vs AT&T vs Sprint vs T-Mobile vs World
5G is here and as the network grows, new questions arise: what 5G bands does carrier use in the United States?
Will your 5G phone work on another carrier? And what do all those differences in bands mean for the actual speeds on your phone?
In this article, we go through the fundamental characteristics of 5G networks and the differences between various 5G bands. We also take a historic look at the 5G band roll-out since its start in the first half of 2019, when consumers got a first taste of the faster speeds to the new 5G developments. We also answers how 5G networks work in general and how different bands affect coverage, so let's get started!
5G is really three different types of bands and it's important to know the difference
5G can be roughly divided in three very distinct types of frequency ranges:
- low-band frequencies (around 600 to 700MHz to around 1GHz) that travel far and wide, but offer slower speeds, more similar to 4G.
- mid-band frequencies (usually from around 2GHz to 4GHz) that strike a balance between fast speed and good coverage.
- high-band frequencies, often referred to as mmWave (24GHz and higher) that don't travel far at all but offer mind-boggling super fast speeds.
Each of these types of bands has its advantages and disadvantages, and chances are that the 5G networks of the future will use all of them in combination.
For example, some phones use high-band mmWave 5G when launched on Verizon, but the same model on T-Mobile could only have low-band 600MHz (n71) 5G support. Both models are 5G capable, but their actual connection speeds differ depending on the situation.
In practical terms, mmWave bands are the most complex and novel type of 5G. They require special bulky antennas installed in phones and a separate modem unit on the motherboard that complicate a phone's design. Since it's so easy to block mmWave with just your hand, phone makers put three or four mmWave antennas in different parts of the phone, so that at least one of those is not obstructed by a hand holding the phone and can actually receive the signal. Unlike 4G LTE antennas, which are tiny wires usually integrated in the motherboard, these new mmWave antennas take up a lot of space, and they add significant complexity to smartphone design. mmWave antennas and their added cost are also one of the reasons why we are seeing flagship phone prices increase further.
Now that we know all of this, here is a quick summary of the popular 5G bands in use across US carriers:
mmWave spectrum 5G bands:
5G networks using mmWave spectrum are mostly in the US, while Europe is deploying 5G using mid-band frequencies
n260 band (based on 37GHz to 40GHz frequencies) -- used by Verizon Wireless, AT&T, T-Mobile
n261 (27.5GHz to 28.35GHz) -- used by Verizon Wireless, AT&T, T-Mobile
n261 (27.5GHz to 28.35GHz) -- used by Verizon Wireless, AT&T, T-Mobile
n257 (26.5GHz to 29.5GHz), not used for consumer 5G
n258 (24.25GHz to 27.5GHz), theoretically this band could be used in the future in Europe (right now Europe uses predominantly mid-band spectrum for 5G)
Mid-band 5G spectrum:
Mid-band is the backbone of most modern 5G networks
n77 (3700MHz) — mid-band used by AT&T and Verizon
n41 (2500MHz) — used by new T-Mobile (formerly used by Sprint)
Low-band 5G spectrum:
T-Mobile was the first US carrier to deploy a low-band 5G network
n71 (600MHz) — used extensively by T-Mobile
n5 (850MHz) — used by AT&T and Verizon
n2 (1900MHz) — used by Verizon
T-Mobile 5G bands
Industry leader with n41, n71, n261, n260
T-Mobile is widely seen as the industry leader in 5G roll-out in the United States. PCMag found it the fastest carrier in the United States in 2022 (and it was also the winner last year). T-Mobile has focused on first providing 5G wireless connectivity across the nation with mid-band 5G rather than start the 5G build out with mmWave like the other two carriers.
After the Sprint merger, T-Mobile quickly repurposed that carrier's extensive mid-band coverage to 5G in band n41, which allowed it to gain the lead in 5G speeds in coverage in 2020 and 2021. That has been the secret sauce. Whenever you see a "UC" connection on T-Mobile, that signifies that you are on the "utlra capacity" network, or in simple terms, you are using one of those fast mid-band connections.
T-Mobile is also using more of the mid-band airwaves than others. Typically, T-Mobile would serve up to 110MHz, while AT&T uses around 40MHz and Verizon uses around 60MHz.
T-Mobile also uses its 600MHz low-band spectrum on LTE Band 71, which was formerly used by channels 38 to 51 on UHF-based TVs. These are low-frequency signals that easily travel far and wide.
T-Mobile is also planning to use higher-frequency bands similar to what AT&T and Verizon use. Magenta plans to use the 28GHz and 39GHz bands for high-speed mmWave 5G transmissions.
Verizon 5G bands
n2, n5, n77, n66, n261, n260
Verizon's mid-band 5G roll-out is the biggest upgrade to the carrier network in years and it makes a real difference and delivering much faster speeds to people who are covered.
Historically, Verizon started building out its 5G network by focusing exclusively on the mmWave technology, using the 28GHz and 39GHz bands. This brought amazing speeds but only to a very limited number of people as mmWave airwaves don't travel long distances.
However more recently, in 2022, Verizon has widely expanded its C-band (mid-band). In January 2022, Verizon launched C-band 5G in 46 cities in the United States, compared to a similar launch in merely 8 cities by AT&T. The key to C-band's success is the wider coverage and bigger, 60MHz channel used. Since the launch, we have seen posts on Reddit from users impressed with 500Mpbs+ speeds in many of the cities.
AT&T 5G bands
n5, n77, n260
After dominating the market in 4G LTE technology, AT&T has been slow adopting 5G tech compared to the other 2 big carriers.
In the middle of 2022, it's only starting to experiment with mid-band 5G which is seen as the future backbone of 5G networks. While Verizon has announced a massive expansion of its mid-band network, AT&T has only started to experiment with towers in the Chicago and New York areas. The company has allegedly planned a wider build out in the second half of 2022 and further into 2023.
In the early days of 5G, AT&T also grew to "fame" for confusing users by labeling 4G technology as 5G Evolution. This was potentially misleading as you cannot just rebrand a 4G network and call it 5G. What AT&T has done then was it had upgraded cell towers and added new small cells that use LTE Advanced with technologies such as 3-way carrier aggregation, 4x4 MIMO and 256-QAM modulation. These technologies have allowed for improved speeds with theoretical peaks of up to 400Mbps. Great for users, but still not quite fast enough to qualify as true 5G.
AT&T also has a mmWave network based on its 39GHz band (band n260), but as all mmWave tech, this is limited to limited pockets in select urban areas.
Sprint 5G bands
Update: As of 2020, Sprint is now acquired by T-Mobile, forming a new super-carrier in the United States.
Sprint was using band 41 for its 5G roll-out and was the only US carrier that did not use a high-frequency mmWave band. Band 41 has a huge scope of 194MHz and it operates between 2,496MHz and 2,690MHz. The network technology that Sprint used is TDD, short for time division duplex, which uses a single frequency band to send and receive transmissions. Contrast this with Frequency Division Duplex (FDD) used by some others where you have separate wireless channels on separate frequencies, a channel to transmit and another one to receive.
USA vs World
As you can see, while the big US carriers started with a mmWave push, the current focus is on expanding the mid-band network, something that European carriers have been doing all along.
This has allowed many of those European countries to have meaningful coverage far exceeding that in the US from the very launch of the service in the first half of 2019. Using low- and mid-bands will also allow some European countries like Switzerland and Austria to have a full, nation-wide 5G coverage faster, but they will not benefit from the blazing fast speeds offered by mmWave.
Phones with 5G support
The first 5G phones started arriving in the first half of 2019, and most phones these days come with some form of 5G support.
The very first and actually the most affordable phone to support the new technology was the Moto Z3 that was launched on August 16th, 2019. The phone itself did not have a 5G modem built-in, but you could add 5G connectivity via a Moto Mod, a bulky, $350 snap-on piece that worked with Verizon's 5G network only.
Here the most popular 5G phone models:
- iPhone 12, iPhone 13 series
- Samsung Galaxy S20, Galaxy S21, Galaxy S22 series
- Galaxy A52 5G, A53 5G editions
- OnePlus 8 and newer models
Beware that certain models sold at a particular carrier and marketed as 5G might not have the bands necessary to operate 5G on a different carrier. One common occurrence has been for Verizon to get exclusive versions of 5G phones that would support mmWave on Big Red, while the same phone sold on AT&T and T-Mobile would not have mmWave support and would typically cost a bit less.
Benefits of 5G over previous technologies
5G is not just a slight evolution, it offers significantly faster speeds for both uploads and downloads, theoretically as much as 20 times faster.
Right now, with very few users on the 5G networks, you can get some truly mind-boggling speeds: Verizon's network in Chicago can return download speeds of 1.3Gbps, faster than the nearly 500Mbps peak download speeds you get on Sprint (but Sprint has a wider and more stable coverage).
The other advantage of 5G would be the better management of voice traffic, which means more devices will be able to connect with every single tower, no call drops and significantly higher call quality.
As 5G becomes ubiquitous it will usher the advent of connected gadgets now that you have sufficient bandwidth and lower latencies. 5G is also often quoted as one of the key technology required for connected cars where every millisecond of lag matters.