Samsung's Galaxy S20 got me more curious about 5G. But what I learned made me sad

With the launch of the Galaxy S20 and its 5G capabilities, I started to do research on 5G coverage. Boy, am I disappointed.

In late 2018, I flew to Chicago to cover the launch of the Moto Z3. Well, I thought that's what I was going to cover it, but instead, Verizon Wireless took over the announcement and turned it into a 5G launch event of sorts. 

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Since then, nearly every wireless carrier has talked about 5G and made a lot of promises about how it will fundamentally change our lives. The promise is that faster speeds and lower latency will allow nearly everything -- from cars to medical devices -- to be always on, always connected, and always communicating with each other. 

And yet, even as carriers have made announcements about turning on their 5G networks, and Qualcomm has flown countless media to Hawaii, where it made even more announcements about new 5G modems that are better and cheaper than the last generation, I had yet to look at a single carrier's 5G coverage map. 

It wasn't until this week ahead of Samsung's Unpacked event -- where the company announced the Galaxy S20 lineup consisting of three flagship phones all with 5G connectivity out of the box -- that I did some research. And, boy, am I disappointed. 

I knew 5G was complicated, and the rollout was a slow process full of nuance and varying technology. But I had no idea just how slow and nuanced it really is still.

The main differences in 5G networks boil down to this: There are two different types of networks. 

  • Sub-6 is the wider-reaching network that delivers faster speeds but is more akin to an LTE network on steroids. 
  • Millimeter-wave (mmWave) technology delivers on the promise of multi-gigabit speeds and low latency, but each node is only capable of covering a couple of city blocks, not wide areas, and it has trouble penetrating buildings. 
denver-5g-verizon.jpg

Verizon's 5G coverage in Denver, Colo.

Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

Verizon's 5G network thus far consists of only mmWave tech, which is why its coverage map for Denver is limited to just a few landmarks and neighborhoods. Sprint's 5G network right now is strictly Sub-6, but only available in a handful of cities. 

T-Mobile and AT&T have deployed Sub-6 and mmWave networks, but only T-Mobile's network is available in more than a handful of cities. T-Mobile claims its 5G network covers 200 million people, most of which are using Sub-6 technology. 

tmobile-5g-colorado.jpg

T-Mobile's 5G network in Southern Colorado, as indicated by the pink areas. 

Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

As of right now, Sprint and AT&T don't have a single 5G site turned on in Colorado. Verizon, as you can see above, is limited to a few city blocks in Denver. I live in a 5G dead-zone and would have to drive about 30 minutes before I would be able to pick up a T-Mobile 5G signal, according to its coverage map. 

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Despite my frustrations, I'm not discouraged. Sure, Samsung's Galaxy S20 lineup, for most, is way ahead of its time when it comes to connectivity. And paying over $1,000 for a phone that has a feature you either have to travel to select cities or wait several months (years, maybe?) to use isn't something most of us are willing to do. But this is the first time we've seen an entire lineup of flagship phones -- from the biggest phone maker on the planet, no less -- include 5G, and that's exciting. 

Carriers warned all along this would be a slow rollout, and it's clear, they weren't bluffing. But hopefully -- with the help of Samsung, and one has to think that Apple will release 5G iPhones later this year -- carriers will speed up the rollout process and we'll begin to see true 5G (not that 5Ge icon AT&T tries to pull off) icons show up at the top of our phones' displays.

For now, I know it doesn't really matter if my phone has 5G capabilities. I'm not covered by a 5G signal, it'd be a pointless feature, and it makes no sense for me to go out and buy a Galaxy S20 just because it has 5G. 

Here's where you can look at your carrier's 5G coverage maps or lists: Sprint, T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon