As the new network grows, new questions arise: what 5G bands do carriers use in the United States? And within carriers, what 5G bands do Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile rely on?
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) that travel far and wide, but offer slower speeds. These are the foundation for widespread 5G.
mid-band frequencies (usually around 1.7GHz - 2.5GHz) that offer a balance between good speed and decent coverage. These are the foundation for 5G in Europe, for example, and were the 5G technology that Sprint used before merging into the new T-Mobile
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. These are used mostly in the US on Verizon Wireless and AT&T.
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. In the early stages of the roll out, however, not all of them are used in concert yet.
For example, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ 5G model used high-band mmWave 5G when it launched on Verizon, but the same model only used low-band 600MHz (n71) 5G band in its T-Mobile reincarnation. Both were 5G capable, but their actual connection speeds differed hugely.
In practical terms, mmWave bands are the most complex and novel type of 5G. In 2020, 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 main reasons why we are seeing flagship phone prices skyrocket to way above $1,000 in 2020.
One example here is the OnePlus 8, a phone that generally supports low-band 5G, but an exclusive version of that phone for Verizon Wireless will support high-band mmWave and because of that its price is $100 higher than the regular model.
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
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:
Sprint has rolled out a huge mid-band network that will flow into the new T-Mobile/Sprint carrier
n41 (2500MHz) -- used by Sprint in the past, now used by new T-Mobile
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
Verizon 5G bands
At the time of this writing, Verizon's 5G network is exclusively mmWave based. It uses the 28GHz and 39GHz bands. Verizon holds 76 percent of the available 28GHz band and 46 percent of the available 39GHz band.
Verizon has also won an auction for 28GHz bands in late May 2019. The carrier topped other bidders in the auction, with winning bids of a total of $505.7 million. Keep in mind that prior to that Verizon also had a big chunk of 28GHz spectrum.
AT&T has done a great job at confusing users by labeling 4G technology as 5G Evolution. This is not true 5G and instead what AT&T has done is that it has upgraded its 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's real 5G network is only getting started and since it uses high-frequency bands coverage will be limited to “pockets of dense areas” within cities. AT&T is currently rolling out a 5G network based on its 39GHz band (band n260).
In late May 2019, AT&T won big in an FCC auction for 24GHz spectrum. AT&T's bids amounted to a total of $982.5 million for 831 licenses in 383 Partial Economic Areas (PEAs) for 24GHz spectrum. This should cover most of the US, as the FCC divides the country into 416 PEAs. AT&T will use this newly acquired spectrum for its true 5G network.
T-Mobile 5G bands
Coverage comes first
T-Mobile is different from other carriers in the US as it has focused on first providing 5G wireless connectivity across the nation and not just in a few spots in the major cities. For this, T-Mobile is using 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, unlike mmWave.
After the Sprint merger, T-Mobile will also adopt that carrier's extensive mid-band 5G coverage in band n41.
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.
Sprint 5G bands
Update: As of 2020, Sprint is now acquired by T-Mobile, forming the third 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, there is one big difference between the big four US carriers and carriers everywhere outside the United States: all three major US carriers use or plan to use mmWave bands.
In stark contrast, European countries have all placed their bets on mid-band 5G roll-out. This has allowed many of those 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
Moto Z3 with 5G Moto Mod
Samsung Galaxy S10 5G
The first 5G phones started arriving in the first half of 2019, and while we have quite a few models even now, most of these phones come at a premium price.
The very first and actually the most affordable phone to support the new technology was the Moto Z3 that was launched on August 16th. 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.
These days, 5G is commonplace among flagships without the need for any additional "mods". Here the most popular 5G phone models:
OnePlus 8 (Verizon model supports mmWave)
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra / S20 Plus (support for high and low-band 5G)
Samsung Galaxy S20 (no support for high-band mmWave 5G)
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.