5G technology was designed to be faster than 4G wireless, with so little latency to help make things like driverless cars possible. 5G running on low band spectrum is the slowest, but it has the advantage of considerable range while mid-band can't travel as far, but is faster. High band spectrum, which is sparsely available, may travel only a mile but is by far the fastest.
An analysis done by OpenSignal released on Thursday found that their testers connected with T-Mobile 5G just 34.7 percent of the time, AT&T 16.4 percent of the time and Verizon just 9.7 percent. And that's generally not for the fastest 5G many expect.
The numbers are in stark contrast to what the carriers promise about 5G in their advertisements, showing how much they are banking on 5G as a selling point in the hotly-contested market for cellular service.
T-Mobile advertises that it has "America's largest, fastest, and most reliable 5G network" with a map covered almost completely in pink, suggesting broad coverage. The map does not distinguish what type of 5G a customer will get, but the fine print states its a mix of lower-performing versions. Top-performing "ultra capacity" 5G coverage, meanwhile, is only available in "hundreds of cities and (for) millions of people" instead of most of the country.
AT&T says it has the "most reliable 5G network," citing a test done for AT&T by Global Wireless Solutions, which evaluates mobile networks. The company notes, however, that its high speed 5G+ is "available in select high-speed zones and venues in over 20 states across the US."
Asked about what appears to be a disparity between advertising and coverage, T-Mobile's Grant Castle, a vice president in network engineering, said that he thought the company is doing well.
"Is our network as big and broad as I would like it to be? No, we're still working on it," said Castle.
Andre Fuetsch, chief technical officer, Network Services at AT&T, said in an emailed statement that 5G "is still early in its lifecycle and is being evolved and enhanced through ongoing investment and innovation."
The BBB National Programs' National Advertising Division has criticised claims made about 5G by all three of the companies, including one in August that prompted Verizon to change its claim about it being the "most reliable" to indicate that it did not specifically refer to 5G service.
"5G right now is (in) the fake it until you make it stage," said Harold Feld, of advocacy group Public Knowledge which promotes affordable communication, adding that when new technology is developed, advertising often gets ahead of actual deployment.
Low income neighborhoods, and to some extent rural areas, are generally the last to get new technology, said Christopher Mitchell of the advocacy group Institute for Local Self Reliance.
Mitchell said that what is touted as 5G in rural areas is often just "incrementally faster 4G."
"We're not expecting to see the super fast 5G in many rural areas. T-Mobile has been better about that," he said. "I feel like there's been a lot of dishonesty in the advertising."
Internationally, the story is similar. South Korea tops the list of best 5G availability at 28.1 percent of the time, with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Hong Kong all above 25 percent, according to an OpenSignal report from early September.