The hype surrounding 5G mobile networks has been building for a couple of years now, but for most Americans accessing the higher download speed and lower latency (the delay time once a data request has been made) service is still a couple years away. That's because only a handful of smartphones even have a 5G chip, not to mention that network coverage is still very limited.

Nevertheless, the race is already shaping up enough that mobile network researcher RootMetrics was able to run tests and provide results from America's four primary network providers. The early numbers show that 5G not only isn't created equal, but it will ultimately be used for very different purposes than the current 4G LTE standard.

Cutting through the marketing

It's first worth acknowledging that mobile companies -- especially Verizon (VZ 0.03%) and T-Mobile (TMUS 0.19%) -- have already begun advertising their new respective networks. T-Mobile in particular has been trumpeting the fact that it's the first carrier to take its 5G nationwide, covering some 200 million in the U.S. For its part, Verizon has been trying to educate consumers on what the next-gen network actually is and what can eventually be expected, versus what is currently being offered by its rivals. Its 5G is currently in parts of 34 cities.

And then there's AT&T (T 0.19%) and Sprint (S), the latter soon to be merged with T-Mobile. AT&T has 5G coverage in parts of 35 cities -- and 80 markets with access to lower-speed 5G (more on that in a moment) -- and Sprint has coverage in parts of nine cities.

At first glance, it would appear that Verizon and Sprint are losing the race. That's too rudimentary a conclusion, though. As RootMetrics explains in its report, it all has to do with bandwidth, the signal on which the mobile network travels. When 5G has been talked about in the past, it was referring to a network that traveled across millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum, an ultra-high-bandwidth frequency that currently tops out some 10 times faster than 4G LTE. That's the spectrum Verizon is focusing on right now, but the trade-off for those blistering fast download speeds is that the signal doesn't travel very far and has difficulty penetrating solid materials (doors, windows, walls, etc.). 

Sprint is working in what's considered mid-band spectrum, still fast but not as fast as mmWave, and T-Mobile and AT&T are working primarily with low-band spectrum. Mid- and low-band spectrum, it should be pointed out, is also where 4G LTE dwells, so it's really only Verizon that is currently tackling mmWave 5G technology.  

Four young people standing against a red wall using smartphones.

Image source: Getty Images.

5G for one, 5G for all

RootMetrics' testing -- which compared 5G in Chicago, Dallas, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. -- does wonders to explain the difference between the nascent services and what can be expected of them. For Verizon, peak percentage of 5G network availability rate was in Chicago, where the researcher reported 3.1% coverage -- pretty sparse. However, the fastest median speed across the five cities was in L.A. at 247.0 megabits per second (Mbps), and peak download speed was in Washington D.C. at 845.7 Mbps. Sprint's mid-band network had peak coverage of 46% in Dallas, and median speeds of 136.7 Mbps and peak speed of 249.9 Mbps (both in Chicago) was far slower than Verizon's mmWave but still respectable.  

That's good news for Sprint's acquirer T-Mobile. Though its low-band spectrum knocks the socks off mmWave as far as coverage with a peak of 57.1% availability in Washington D.C., at this point in time RootMetrics said T-Mobile's 4G LTE was faster than its 5G -- with median download speeds of just 34.0 Mbps. Of course, it's still early days in the development and rollout of the new network, but it makes sense why T-Mobile wanted to merge with Sprint to help propel its 5G plans along. The story was similar for AT&T, which has a strong 4G LTE network that in most cases was as good as or better than its newer 5G service.  

Also of note to RootMetrics was the fact that Verizon's current 4G LTE median and peak download speeds were nearly as fast as or faster than the low-band 5G spectrum at AT&T and T-Mobile in the five test markets. Again, it's early days, but at this point the low-band 5G spectrum providers appear to be trying to narrow the gap with Verizon's leading 4G LTE network, whereas Verizon's 5G mmWave is a different animal entirely.  

So what does it all matter? For consumers, it looks like a win: Eventually, once those 5G-enabled phones start coming out at reasonable price points, low-band 5G should introduce new competition for the highest quality everyday service. And as for Verizon 5G mmWave, it still has work to do if it wants to extend coverage to the masses. However, that was never the goal right out the gate. mmWave 5G is being aimed at densely populated areas (think mobile coverage for things like conferences and sporting events) and for business use. In fact, Verizon has been providing a steady stream of updates on how its mmWave 5G is being used, like at a Corning (GLW 0.19%) fiber optic cable factory and its team-up with Amazon (AMZN -1.11%) AWS offering 5G at the mobile network edge.

In short, Verizon is still in the lead with its network for consumers, and is building on that strength with truly next-gen services aimed at new use cases for the future.