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Hiawatha Bray | Tech Lab

Not so fast: Bostonians may want to wait a bit longer on 5G service

Workers rebuilt a cell tower with 5G equipment for Verizon in Orem, Utah. For now, Verizon 5G delivers astonishing speed in Boston — as long as you’re in the Fenway, standing at a street corner.
Workers rebuilt a cell tower with 5G equipment for Verizon in Orem, Utah. For now, Verizon 5G delivers astonishing speed in Boston — as long as you’re in the Fenway, standing at a street corner.George Frey/Getty Images

At last, 5G wireless data service has come to Boston. Sign up now, and you’ll be among the first to be disappointed.

You can choose from two flavors of frustration.

There’s Verizon 5G. It delivers astonishing speed, as long as you’re in the Fenway, standing at a street corner. Or there’s T-Mobile 5G. It’s available all over town, and compatible phones went on sale last Friday.

Unlike the Verizon system, T-Mobile 5G works indoors — even down in the subway. But where are those blazing-fast downloads we were promised? Yes, it’s faster than 4G, but not by all that much.

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Throw in the $800-and-up price tag for a 5G compatible phone, and early adopters are setting themselves up for a serious case of buyers’ remorse. T-Mobile tries to soften the blow: Trade in an old smartphone and sign up for 24 months of service, and new customers can get a $900 OnePlus 5G phone for free. It’s a decent enough deal if you don’t mind being locked in for two years.

Still, the relatively slow performance of T-Mobile’s 5G service might leave you wondering what all the fuss is about. Don’t get too cynical. In the long run, 5G will bring us faster and more versatile mobile networks. But not just yet.

For one thing, the nation’s cell carriers are pursuing different strategies as they build out their networks. Verizon and AT&T want to blow our socks off, so they’ve begun by erecting “millimeter wave,” or mmWave, systems that use extremely high radio frequencies. An mmWave device can crank out 1 or 2 gigabits of data per second, much faster than the typical home broadband service.

But mmWave suffers from very short range — like a block or two at best — and it cannot penetrate objects such as walls, windows, or heavy foliage. It’s great if you’re standing outdoors; step into the corner coffee shop, or just walk around the corner, and the signal fades. So neighborhoods with mmWave 5G must deploy lots of little cell sites mounted on lampposts, or on the sides of buildings.

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It will take thousands of cell sites for Verizon to cover the entire country with mmWave; in Boston, only the Fenway neighborhood is covered, with others to follow.

Meanwhile, T-Mobile is pitching 5G for the masses, using a technology that can be deployed quickly over entire cities. The company says its 5G network already covers 200 million people, or about 60 percent of the US population.

T-Mobile pulled it off by using relatively low radio frequencies that carry over long distances and aren’t slowed much by windows or walls. And since all T-Mobile had to do was add new transmitters to its existing cell sites, it was able to go nationwide fast.

With low-frequency 5G, you don’t see a big fall-off in speed when you go indoors, or turn a corner. On the other hand, you don’t get as much of a speed boost. T-Mobile tells customers to expect a 20 percent increase, compared to its existing 4G service.

The 4G service from T-Mobile is already pretty good. I once clocked it at well over 100 megabits per second. But we’ll be realistic, and cite a July survey by the British research firm Opensignal, which pegged T-Mobile’s nationwide average 4G download speed at 23.6 megabits per second — still, by the way, the fastest in the industry. That’s just about fast enough to stream a 4K high-definition movie.

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Armed with a borrowed T-Mobile 5G phone and the industry-standard Ookla Speedtest app, I wandered Greater Boston via the Red Line to take some measurements of my own. At various locations in Dorchester, Quincy and Cambridge, I usually managed to pull in a decent 5G signal over T-Mobile’s network. But nowhere did I get anything approaching Verizon 5G speeds.

The best performance came in the lobby of the 33 Arch St. building in downtown Boston, where I got 10 times the average speed of 4G. No other location came close, though I was pleasantly surprised to get a download speed of more than 100 megabits in the Red Line tunnel between Kendall and Central in Cambridge.

Has T-Mobile neglected Dorchester? I got much slower speeds in that neighborhood — about what you’d expect from 4G. Quincy did a lot better, with up to 100 megabits.

So, yes. T-Mobile 5G is distinctly better than 4G. But it’s nothing like the orders-of-magnitude improvement Verizon delivers.

And there are other concerns. T-Mobile has deployed its own version of superfast mmWave in a few US cities and plans to add more. But its current 5G phones aren’t compatible with mmWave, so even if it comes to Boston, you’re out of luck.

Meanwhile, T-Mobile is set to merge with rival carrier Sprint, which controls a lot of mid-range radio frequencies that should deliver much faster data speeds. And sure enough, the new T-Mobile phones are compatible with these Sprint frequencies. So once the merger goes through, T-Mobile 5G could get a lot faster.

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But while federal regulators have signed off on the deal, a bunch of states, including Massachusetts, are suing to block it on antitrust grounds. The trial starts next week, and it might be months or years before it’s all sorted out. So there’s no telling when — or whether — the merged T-Mobile-Sprint will offer full-spectrum 5G.

None of this is a knock on 5G, a technology that’s going to live up to the hype one of these days. Just not today.


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.