The True Cost of Real 5G Service

Apple fans are about to get their feet wet with 5G tomorrow when the iPhone 12 goes up for preorder. For some, this might be the closest they ever get to ultrafast 5G: plunking down cash for a device that supports the new wireless standard.

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I’ve talked a bit about why 5G coverage is still way, way too sporadic for it to be the single most important reason you upgrade to any iPhone 12 variant. But if you don’t want to hear my thoughts about coverage, let’s talk costs.

It would be foolish to think that you can just upgrade to a new iPhone 5G and get instant access to faster speeds on your wireless plan. That may be true for some people who are already enrolled in 5G-friendly wireless plans. For many more, however, upgrading to a 5G phone also means upgrading to a potentially more expensive plan to access those faster speeds—if you even can. (OK, OK, I’ll stop.)

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Here’s a quick look at what these extra costs look like across the “Big Three” carriers:

The true cost of 5G on Verizon: $80/mo

Prepaid plans: This gets a bit confusing. If you’re looking directly at Verizon’s listings for prepaid plans, you won’t see 5G mentioned anywhere—unlike its postpaid unlimited plans, which we’ll get to in a bit.

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Elsewhere on Verizon’s site, a FAQ confirms that prepaid plan users will get access to “5G,” but not the 5G you’re probably thinking of. Remember, Verizon is working on two 5G technologies: “Nationwide” and “5G Ultra Wideband.” The former is basically just low-band 5G that gives you 4G performance under the 5G icon. The latter is true 5G—all those fancy gigabit-plus speeds you’re seeing referenced in every smartphone manufacturer’s recent press events.

As Verizon notes:

“5G Ultra Wideband is not available for prepaid plans at this time. 5G Ultra Wideband is coming to Prepaid in early 2021. Those with prepaid plans can access 5G Nationwide* with a 5G Nationwide-capable device.”

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So, theoretically, you can access “5G” without needing to upgrade your prepaid plan—unless you’re on the very basic $35/month “Talk & text” plan. If you are, you’ll only get 2G speeds, no matter what kind of a 5G phone you have.

Otherwise, if you want 5G Ultra Wideband—assuming you can access Verizon’s high-speed network where you are—you’ll have to upgrade to one of the company’s prepaid unlimited plans. And that’ll be quite a jump, seeing as its postpaid plans cost anywhere from $40-$65.

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Data plans: You might not use a lot of data on-the-go, so it makes sense that you’d want to save money with one of Verizon’s data plans—as in, you get a certain amount of gigabytes per month before you’re billed outrageous overage fees ($15/1GB, with any data use rounded up.)

As before, you’ll only get access to “Nationwide 5G,” though I don’t see any language from Verizon about access to its 5G Ultra Wideband network being delayed. My suspicion is that those on capped data plans won’t be able to access that network, which seems silly, but I don’t make the billing rules.

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Verizon’s data plans hover between $65-$75 (before discounts).

Postpaid plans: If you want access to Verizon’s “5G Ultra Wideband” network on your smartphone—the fastest 5G speeds you can get—you’ll need to cough up at least $80/month to Verizon. That’s the least you’ll pay when you add the $10 5G Ultra Wideband upgrade to your $70/month “Start Unlimited” plan, or pick up the $80/mo “Play More Unlimited” plan that includes 5G Ultra Wideband access.

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The true cost of 5G on AT&T: $75/mo

Prepaid plans: Like Verizon, AT&T describes its 5G services in two ways: ”5G,” which is its own version of just “really fast LTE,” and 5G+, which is its “super-fast gigabit speeds using mmWave technology” implementation. Only one of AT&T’s prepaid wireless plans can access anything 5G, and that’s the $75/mo “Unlimited Data Plus” plan.

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I haven’t seen anything to suggest that you can only access “5G,” and not “5G+”—AT&T doesn’t split the two terms in the descriptions for any of its plans. I believe this is the way to go if you want the latter and a souped-up version of the 4G LTE you already have. That’s assuming, of course, that you don’t actually get slower speeds on 5G.

Data plans: This one’s easy. You can’t access 5G if you subscribe to AT&T’s “4GB” data plan for $50/mo.

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Postpaid plans: Every one of AT&T’s postpaid “unlimited” plans can access its 5G network(s). Prices range from $65/month for AT&T Unlimited Starter to $85/month for AT&T Unlimited Elite (which gets you +30GB of mobile hotspot data, HD streaming, HBO Max, and more mobile security features). Note, those prices include AT&T’s “Autopay” and “Paperless billing” discounts. So, really, these plans normally cost $10 more.

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The true cost of 5G on T-Mobile: $40/mo (really, $50/mo)

Before we begin, a word about T-Mobile’s 5G implementation: The “Uncarrier” doesn’t differentiate between high- or lower-speed 5G (mmWave versus the “Nationwide” lower-band 5G that you should be used to hearing by now). It’s also building out 5G in its mid-band spectrum, which splits the difference between wild speeds-plus-low coverage and 4G LTE-like speeds-plus-higher coverage.

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All plans: You get access to T-Mobile’s 5G network—in whatever capacity it’s offered where you are—on any plan.

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This includes all prepaid plans, data plans, and postpaid plans. The cheapest you’ll be able to get 5G connectivity is through T-Mobile’s prepaid 10GB plan ($40/mo), and the cheapest “Unlimited” plan is its prepaid plan of the same name for $50/mo. Its postpaid plans start at $60/mo.

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