Last time we had the chance to test a live 5G network, I spent a day running around Chicago in the pouring rain. The experience was nevertheless fruitful: When I finally stumbled upon live 5G nodes, I saw my download speeds of around 630 Mbps down. It's still shorter than the roughly 1 Gbps theoretical top speeds that Verizon had talked about before, but still not as shabby considering I used the network during a day after it went live.
Sprint's approach, however, is slightly different. Instead of dotting cities with mmwaves that provide super-fast speeds when in a very limited area, Sprint tried to carve out larger areas of 5G coverage that, although not as fast as Verizon, feel a little more consistent. During the afternoon of hiking and speed testing, I sometimes saw speeds ticking over 200 Mbps ̵
With all that said, Sprint's 5G network can be a bit all-over-the-place. While sitting out with full 5G rods, I could never be sure if my download speeds would exceed 200Mbps or quite the thought of a given Speedtest trial. However, I managed to download the entire first season of Netflix's 13 Reasons Why (made up of 13, about 300MB episodes) in about 15 minutes.
To get a clearer sense of the differences between transporters, I picked up the East Village, where Sprint's engineers had previously reported strong results. AT&T and Verizon usually ended up in 50-60Mbps down range, and T-Mobile – which will swallow Sprint all along – let routine download speeds just shy of 100Mbps. However, OnePlus 7 Pro on Sprint blew away competitors at sustained speeds over 200 Mbps. Even better, the fast speeds sometimes seemed stable when I was bathing indoors – sometimes I would achieve results above 200 Mbps, although they tend to hover in the mid-100s. Still, it can be an important differentiator from mmWave-based networks like Verizons and T-Mobiles – while testing Verizon 5G in Chicago, I often saw that my test phone went back to LTE completely if I wasn't sitting next to a window.  So far, Sprint's download speeds have not thrilled, but they did mean a real improvement over the standard LTE speeds. I wish I could say the same about the carrier's 5G upload speeds – even when I've got very solid downstream performance, I never saw Sprint's upload speeds tick above 20 Mbps. Not good. First, I had wondered if Sprint relied solely on LTE for its uploads, as Verizon does in the existing 5G markets. It turns out that Sprint uses "real" 5G for the uploads, but a spokesman claimed that "80 percent" of the carrier's network is downlinked, "and that it could add more uplink capacity if needed .
I also have to give Sprint some props to leave the 5G indicator in the notification shade, even nothing seemed to be active using a network connection. One of my biggest legs with the Verizon 5G network when I tested it in April because it only lit up the 5G logo when an app or an Android component used the network, it often looked like 5G coverage was a lot spottier than it was. Sprint might not be as fast, but at least you can see The 5G logo lights up on your phone and knows that you are likely to get a better networking experience than you would on LTE.There are still very early days for live, nature 5G, so setting people expectations is right something transporters really g need to find out. For now, at least Sprint seems to be on the right track.
Based on this very early experience in New York, it is easy to assume that Sprint's 5G implementation may be missing something. I think it's too early to call – while Sprint 5G has been living in New York City for a little while now, today is only officially day one, and it's good time to train the bugs. Sprint CEO Michel Combe also said during a reporter's table this morning that Sprint, instead of expanding aggressively, would focus on strengthening the nine current 5G markets. For Sprint, the smallest (and in some cases the worst) of the four major wireless carriers is a dual distribution of 5G coverage in these markets – these are also the cities where LTE data usage is highest, so providing better network performance for these people should Go a long way to keep them happy.
Fortunately, only things get better from here. At this point, it seems almost certain that Sprint and T-Mobile will finally merge, at which point Sprint's new 5G network will be boosted by T-Mobile's high speed, mmWave distribution. Exactly how these networks are going to merge remains to be seen, but even at this point, it seems safe to say that Sprint's recent 5G launches are just the beginning of a bigger, far more interesting journey with T-Mobile.