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It used to be that we could do okay with less than 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) of internet. That was before we filled our evenings with streaming movies and TV shows and our days with working from home on Zoom meetings and Software-as-a-Service applications. Now, we need at least 25 Mbps, the more the better.
Fiber internet offers the best speeds for those lucky enough to have it, and cable is the second-best option. After that, it's a real drop-off. For example, DSL tops out, in theory, at 100 Mbps, but in practice, it maxes out at 25 Mbps. It's also on its way out, with big providers like AT&T no longer offering it. There are other alternatives such as Wireless ISPs (WISP), 4G-based internet, the old and slow satellite internet services, and the fast (but difficult to get installed) low-earth orbit (LEO) Starlink. Now there's a new wireless internet alternative to add to the mix: 5G internet.
5G home internet uses the same signals as 5G phones, but it is a fixed wireless internet service. WISPs have been around for decades -- I installed one in the 80s from an off-campus site to Goddard Space Flight Center -- but these services tend to be point-to-point. That means they use a line of sight between their antennas and yours for the connection. 5G internet doesn't need a line-of-sight connection.
It does require an indoor or outdoor 5G receiver at your home to pick up the signal. Once there, you'll also need a router to get the signal to your PCs and smart devices. You also should know that just because you're using your smartphone's 5G network, you can't move it. Your gateway is locked to your location and cannot be used elsewhere.
5G internet is very much a work in progress. For example, AT&T offers a 5G mobile service and fixed wireless internet, but the two aren't connected. For now, their wireless internet service doesn't use its 5G network.
One company, FreedomFi, is working on a do-it-yourself 5G network. You can expect to see smaller companies offering local 5G internet services using their open-source technology within the next 12 months.
In the meantime, there are three major 5G internet providers: Starry Internet, T-Mobile Home Internet, and Verizon 5G Internet.
Specs: Category: 5G Internet | Price: $30
Starry Internet lives between old-school WISP and 5G. It uses high-frequency bands in the 24 and 37GHz range to deliver your Internet. Within that range, it uses 5G millimeter wave (mmWave) technology. But, unlike Verizon, which uses mmWave for its Ultra Wideband short-range 5GT-Mobile Home Internet phone service, thanks to its point-to-point approach Starry has considerably more range.
That's the good news. The bad news is that Starry is still unavailable in most locations. By 2022, the company plans to expand from Denver, LA, and cities in the NorthEast corridor to tens of millions of users.
Starry developed and manufactured every part of its offering. Everything from the antennas, the base stations, the receivers, and even the Wi-Fi router is all the company's own design and work. It's all built to work well together for the best possible performance. Starry users tell me that the service delivers the promised speeds.
Like satellite services, users I know who have Starry report that rainy or snowy weather can sometimes slow down or even knock the connection. On the other hand, they also report that Starry has excellent customer service. And, when was the last time you heard anyone say that about an ISP?
All of Starry's plans come with unlimited data, no equipment fees, and no contracts. These plans start with Starry Basic, which comes with 50Mbps up and down services for $30 a month. Starry Plus, which is widely available, provides 200Mbps down and 100Mbps up, and costs $50 a month. There are other, faster and more expensive packages. These top out at a Gigabit per second (Gbps) down and 500Mbps up for $80 a month. But, these service offerings are not widely available.
Starry also offers an affordable internet plan for seniors, students, and low-income households. This option, Starry Connect, costs $15 per month, for symmetrical upload and download speeds of 30Mbps.
Starry Internet is currently available in Boston; Columbus, Ohio; Denver; Los Angeles; New York City, and Washington, DC. Its 2022 expansion roadmap includes approximately 30 million households in such cities as Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Indianapolis, Memphis, Miami, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle.
If you can get it, Starry is well worth checking out.
Specs: Category: 5G Internet | Price: $60
T-Mobile says you'll automatically receive the best speeds and is by far the most widely available 5G internet service. There's really no comparison. That's because T-Mobile both bought Sprint and thus got its 5G bandwidth allotments and it's worked hard on its mid-range 5G deployment. For you, that means even if you live way out in the country, odds are good you'll get reasonably fast internet.
True, T-Mobile's not the fastest 5G service around. That's because depending on where you live and how much bandwidth all the other T-Mobile customers are using, your service will switch between 4G LTE and 5G. Today, T-Mobile expects you'll get up to 100Mbps download speeds.
CNET recently tested T-Mobile's service and reached a high of 132Mbps. The company warns that the "vast majority of our customers experience speeds of 25Mbps or more."
The company doesn't offer tiered speeds or pricing today. T-Mobile says you'll automatically receive the best speeds available at your address. As better speeds are available, you'll automatically get them for no additional cost.
On the other hand, T-Mobile has no data caps whatsoever. You can use all the internet you want without worrying about running out of bandwidth.
T-Mobile Home Internet is just $60 all-in with AutoPay for customers who already have (or switch to) a tax-included plan. This also includes all setup fees and taxes and has no annual contract. You can currently, available through the end of 2021, get $10 off Google's YouTube TV if you're a new subscriber.
For rural users, T-Mobile is a no-brainer. It's far better than most countryside ISP choices.
Specs: Category: 5G Internet | Price: $70
Let's get straight to the point. Verizon 5G Internet claims you can get from 300Mbps to 1Gbps with its service. I know of no one -- no one -- who gets anything close to that speed. They make that claim because if you're within a few dozen yards of one of their 5G Ultra Wideband towers you may see those speeds. If you look at Verizon's fine print you'll find "5G Ultra Wideband is available only in parts of select cities." But, when you're living somewhere like that chances are you can already get high-speed cable or fiber.
For the rest of us, you're stuck with 5G Nationwide, which uses Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS). This is only 5G for advertising purposes. It actually uses the 4G LTE spectrum and has almost identical speeds. These speeds typically come in at around 25Mbps.
But, Verizon is also using its recently acquired Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) to speed up its 4G LTE and Nationwide offerings. Early CBRS deployments are hitting speeds of 700Mbps. Verizon also recently bought the right to use the C-band spectrum. This will also increase its 5G Nationwide range and speed.
Verizon 5G Home Internet pricing is $70 a month, or $50 a month for Verizon mobile customers who already pay at least $30 a month. For this, you also get your equipment, setup fees, and taxes. It also doesn't have a data cap.
Verizon's 5G Home Internet is currently offered in parts of 57 different markets, including Akron, Ohio; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Arlington, Texas; Anaheim, California; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Charlotte, North Carolina; Chicago; Cincinnati; Cleveland; Columbia, South Carolina; Columbus, Ohio; Dallas; Denver; Des Moines, Iowa; Detroit; Durham, North Carolina; Fremont, California; Fresno, California; Greensboro, North Carolina; Gresham, Oregon; Hartford, Connecticut; Houston; Indianapolis; Kansas City, Missouri; Las Vegas; Little Rock, Arkansas; Los Angeles; Louisville, Kentucky; Memphis, Tennessee; Miami; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota; Nashville; New Orleans; Niagara Falls, New York; Omaha, Nebraska; Orlando; Pensacola, Florida; Phoenix; Raleigh, North Carolina; Riverside, California; Sacramento, California; Salt Lake City; San Antonio, Texas; San Diego; San Francisco; San Jose, California; Sarasota, Florida; Seattle; Spokane, Washington; St. Louis; St. Petersburg, Florida; Tampa, Florida; and Tucson, Arizona. That's a long list, but note they say "parts" of markets. You can literally get a signal in one block and bupkis in the next one.
Now you may be lucky enough to live next door to a Verizon 5G Internet tower. In that case, you'll see great speed and little latency. But, for most of us, Verizon's not impressive.
That said, by this time next year it may be a different story. Verizon's new technologies should boost its average speed and range considerably. Check in next fall and Verizon may be the best 5G internet option around.
You may think 5G is one technology. It's not. 5G is an umbrella term for three different kinds of 5G. These are mmWave, midband, and low-band 5G. These are all very different from each other.
What Verizon wants to sell you, mmWave, under the tag line, "This is 5G built right," is only "built" today in a handful of places. It currently runs on 24 and 28 GHz bands and won't be spreading anytime soon. That's because its range isn't much more than Wi-Fi's range. Sure, you can cover a stadium with it, but city blocks? Dream on.
Besides mmWave's limited range, it has no penetration to speak of. Your office's walls will block it. Heck, even leaves and windows can seriously slow it down. So, sure outside while you're cheering on your team you may see Gigabit speeds -- so long as not too many of your fellow fans are using up the bandwidth -- but in your business or home? Forget about it. The only way you'll see 5G inside most buildings is the same way you get Wi-Fi in them: By filling them with access points.
Midband, which can run between 1 GHz and 6 GHz has more coverage and penetration than mmWave. Sprint, now owned by T-Mobile, was the first to roll it out at 2.5 GHz. Midband averages real-world speeds of over 100Mbps downloads. By comparison, 4G LTE averages just over 20 Mbps. Its range varies depending on exactly which frequency it uses, but it will be considerably more than mmWave and about half that of 4G LTE.
Low-band 5G, which T-Mobile launched on Dec. 6, 2019, lives in the 600 MHz spectrum. If you're an old-school TV watcher of a certain age, that's where your UHF TV channels 38-51 live.
This kind of 5G has a far greater range than the others or 4G LTE. A single tower can cover hundreds of square miles. Its performance will vary, but it's usually at least as fast as 4G LTE's 20+ Mbps and can reach speeds of up to 250 Mbps.
That sounds great, and if you live in rural America, low-band 5G is going to be a game-changer. If you live in a city it may be a different story. Depending on how the spectrum is divided up between the mobile carriers, there may not be enough spectrum for T-Mobile's 5G to show to its best advantage.
Verizon also advertises what it calls 5G Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS). This is not really 5G. It's just marketing. Verizon admits that all you really get from 5G DSS is about the same range and performance as you're already getting from Verizon 4G LTE connection.
Finally, your Wi-Fi router's 5GHz is not the same thing as 5G. Wi-Fi uses short-range radio frequencies, 2.4 or 5Ghz to transmit your internet signal from your ISP to your home or office devices. While techies can use Wi-Fi to link networks over long distances, your router's 5Ghz is in no way a last-mile internet connection.
Your ISP will tell you one thing on their websites but remember they want to sell you more bandwidth. ISPs can also mislead you about what they can actually deliver. Over the years, I've been told by ISPs they could hook me up with connections they literally couldn't deliver. And let's not even talk about their speed guarantees, which more often than not are wishful thinking.
To see what you really get from any given connection, run one of these internet speed tests.
The following is a useful list to see how much bandwidth you need from your internet.
Keep in mind, though, that these are additive. For example, if you're video-conferencing in HD (20 Mbps), while your partner's watching Dune in 4K on HBO Max (35Mbps), and your kids are playing Fortnite (35 Mbps), you'll need 90 Mbps to keep everyone happy.
But, wait, there's more. For example, even if you only have one or two people in your home, there are more than 10 internet-connected devices in the average US home. Besides the ones you first think of -- computers, streaming devices, and gaming consoles -- there are also smartwatches, Internet of Things gadgets, and even pet-tracking devices. If you're using these devices all the time, then you'll want to have enough bandwidth to power all of them.
For example, in my computer-happy home office, I have over 30 internet-connected devices. If you're a faithful ZDNet reader, chances are you too have a house filled with net-connected devices.
So, to account for all those internet-connected devices, I'd add another 10 Mbps to your account. In my hypothetical family that brings your total required bandwidth to 100 Mbps.
Not so long ago, most homeowners didn't care that much about upload speeds. Then, we all started working from home. Now it's a different story. We need good upload speeds for our video-conferencing and work. Except on fiber internet connections, most internet technologies offer far lower upstream speeds than down. For example, my cable Gigabit plan gives me in real life no more than 800Mbps down, but only 40Mbps up. Yes, that still sounds fast, but if you're doing a lot of online classes or video-conferencing you can run right into those limits and end up with a bad connection.
Generally speaking, 5G services ratios are better. Technically, 5G services provide half the upstream speeds they offer downstream. So, a 600 Mbps hookup should give you 300 Mbps uploads. As always, check the fine print, if upload speeds are a critical concern for you.
Speaking of fine print, what ISPs promise they'll deliver in the way of bandwidth often isn't what you get. For example, the Federal Trade Commission, along with law enforcement agencies from six states, recently sued Frontier Communications, alleging that the company didn't provide many consumers with the internet speeds it promised them. And, adding insult to injury, the company charged many of them for more expensive and higher-speed service than was actually provided.
In my experience, this is all too common. According to AllConnect, a company that promises to help you find the best telecommunication deals, "15% of internet users, or 45 million people, are getting less than their advertised speeds." Of those, "Fiber and cable internet have the biggest gap – with most people getting, on average, about 55% of the speeds they pay for."
In the case of 5G what speeds you actually get also depends on how far you are away from the tower. And, if your ISP has oversold your local connection, your speeds will also be slower when everyone tries to use it at once. The short tell for this is if during prime TV watching time your connection starts to slow down. All those streaming shows eat up a lot of the available bandwidth.
Sure, if all you do is e-mail then you can get by with 6 Mbps or less. But, if you're routinely transferring large files, having video conferences, or streaming 4K video, you need all the speed you can get. But, there's more to the matter than just raw speed.
If you need fast throughput, you also need the highest data cap you can get. It doesn't matter how quick your connection is if your service drops your speed to a crawl. For example, the satellite ISP HughesNet's speed maxes out at 25 Mbp, that's not great, but you might be able to live with it. However, once you've gone over 10 GB–50 GB of data depending on your plan, speed is cut drastically.
Or, other plans let you keep your speed, but they start charging you extra. For instance, AT&T's fixed-wireless internet plan—which is available to rural internet customers in remote areas has a 350 GB data cap. When you go over it, it costs $10 for every additional 50 GB.
Because data caps vary, be certain to check the fine print. ISPs make a point of not sharing this information so double-check if you think you're using so much data that you might break your provider's data cap.
Which 5G internet provider is right for you?
Start by using the provider's online form to see if service is available at your address. It's also wise to ask neighbors who already have a connection how well it works for them. ISPs have been known to promise more than they can deliver and you don't want to be trapped in a bad deal.
You should also look at any available add-ons. Besides voice phone service, some provide discounted rates for streaming services. AT&T, for example, bundles HBO Max with some high-end internet packages. ISPs also commonly offer e-mail services and some offer virtual private networks (VPN) services.