AT&T and Verizon switch on a new, faster form of 5G wireless data service

·5 min read

Jan. 20—Wireless carriers AT&T and Verizon are giving their U.S. smartphone and tablet users faster internet speeds as of this week — but not all potential Minnesota customers can avail themselves of this option right away.

The companies on Wednesday flipped the switch on much-anticipated "C-band" capability, which refers to a swath of spectrum that will bring dramatically better wireless-data capabilities to millions.

This service offering falls under the heading of "5G," which has been around for a few years. However, 5G has been available only in a limited form from AT&T and Verizon until now.

For instance, a "low-band" 5G variant has seen broad Minnesota and nationwide deployment, but with speeds little better than traditional 4G LTE.

A "high-band" 5G variant offers jaw-dropping speeds, on the other hand, but it has seen limited deployment — Verizon offers it only on a few blocks in downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis, and a few other metro nooks and crannies.

Such high-band service, technically known as millimeter wave, or mmWave, has trouble penetrating walls, so it's mostly intended to be used outdoors, and it works best when it has a direct line of sight to a transmitter. All of this has made mmWave the brunt of jokes.

Enter C-band, which lives in the "mid-band" spectrum. It's sometimes referred to as "goldilocks" 5G since it is about 10 times faster than LTE — think downloads of about 1 gigabit a second under ideal conditions — while working over wide areas and in a mix of indoor and outdoor settings.

T-Mobile has offered mid-band service in the Twin Cities for a while, giving it a competitive edge. So it's no wonder AT&T and Verizon are scrambling to activate their C-Band spectrum.

VERIZON

Verizon customers in the Twin Cities stand to benefit the most, at first.

The carrier has announced its C-band service will cover about 90 million people as of Wednesday, and about 100 million people within the next month.

That is estimated to encompass about 90 percent of current 5G users in Minnesota and elsewhere. Verizon had not released coverage maps yet, but C-band service reportedly will cover much if not all of the Twin Cities.

C-band service won't magically appear on every local Verizon customer's phone, however.

Users need the right smartphone or tablet. This includes Apple's iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 devices as well as its 5G-capable iPad Pro and iPad mini tablets. Samsung's S21 models along with its Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Galaxy Z Flip 3 folding phones also work, and the Google Pixel 6 line should be active soon. All new Verizon phones going forward reportedly will be C-band-compatible.

Users also need the a compatible wireless-data plan to tap into C-band service.

How can you tell the service is working on your device? Look for "5G UW" (short for Ultra Wideband) at the top of the screen.

A number of companies known as mobile virtual network operators piggyback on the Verizon network and resell its 5G service in a rebranded form. Comcast's Xfinity Mobile is one such MNVO, and a company representative told the Pioneer Press that its wireless service is C-band-compatible.

If you use another MNVO, check to see whether it supports C-band or will do so soon.

AT&T

For Minnesota wireless customers, AT&T's C-band news isn't as good (at least for now).

The carrier has announced availability in limited parts of eight U.S. metro areas or state regions: Austin, Texas; Chicago; Dallas/Fort Worth; Detroit; Houston; Jacksonville, Fla.; Orlando, Fla., and South Florida.

There's no word on when the Twin Cities will be added to the list. AT&T's C-band does work at sports venues Target Center and U.S. Bank Stadium, but that might not be incentive enough for local customers to make the switch for now.

As with Verizon, you will need to be on the right phone for C-band service to work. According to Verizon, that includes Apple's iPhone 12 and 13 models and Samsung's S21 devices along with its Galaxy A13 5G model and its Galaxy Z Flip 3 and Galaxy Z Fold 3 foldables.

Apple's 5G-capable iPads and Google's Pixel 6 phones are not on the official list provided to the Pioneer Press, but a company spokesman said they appear to be compatible (a software update may be required).

As for wireless plans, AT&T says C-band is included with any that now provides 5G access at no extra charge.

How do you know the new service is working on your gadget? Look for "5G+" at the top of the screen.

T-MOBILE

For those seeking reliable and speedy service, T-Mobile remains a viable mid-band option.

The service works on spectrum other than C-band, but this is a geeky detail meaning little for average phone users who just want results — and T-Mobile has provided them for subscribers in the Twin Cities.

Users of T-Mobile's so-called Ultra Capacity service will see "5G UC" at the top of their device screens.

HOME BROADBAND

5G availability extends to home broadband service, in some cases.

T-Mobile provides a fast form of wireless Internet service for those seeking an alternative to Comcast Xfinity, Lumen Technologies (formerly CenturyLink) and other traditional residential broadband providers. A modem-like device taps into T-Mobile's mid-band signal and translates it into a Wi-Fi signal for use by laptops and other devices within a home.

Verizon also has played in this space — but its 5G-based home Internet service has only been available in the limited areas (such as parts of downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis) served by its high-band millimeter wave service. That changes with the deployment of C-band, which opens up the broadband service to many more Twin Cities customers.

AT&T doesn't offer a 5G form of home broadband, but does provide such a service for businesses.

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