Wednesday 11 March 2020

USA has an interesting mix of different types of 5G

The US operators always had an interesting strategy for their 5G rollouts. Verizon for example was always focused on mmWave 5G as we wrote about earlier here. T-Mobile was pushing for a nationwide 5G using 600 MHz back in 2017. Sprint always planned to use its 2.5 GHz C-Band spectrum for 5G. AT&T was more focused on LTE and they rolled out 5Ge. In fact as we wrote in our post on Telecom Infrastructure blog, during Superbowl, there was no AT&T 5G available in the stadium.

The fact is that as you can see in the layer cake picture above, the lower the frequency, the further the signal propagates. At the same time, due to only lower bandwidths being available in the low frequency, the throughput it can deliver is restricted. So there is a trade-off between coverage and throughput.

In the Telecoms Infrastructure blog post, we discussed the winners and losers based on Ookla Speedtest results as can be seen in the picture above.

OpenSignal has performed a more detailed analysis on the US operators that they detailed in their blog here. The following is a summary from that post:

In these tests, average 5G download speeds from Verizon were 15 times faster than the slowest 5G offering

Opensignal recorded the fastest average 5G download speed of 722.9 Mbps on Verizon’s 5G mmWave network, followed by T-Mobile’s mmWave with 243.1 Mbps, and Sprint at 183.0 Mbps on its 2.5 GHz 5G network in known locations where 5G was present. AT&T and T-Mobile’s low-band 5G networks clocked average download speeds of 59.3 Mbps and 47.5 Mbps respectively, confirming that the type of 5G service and the spectrum used for 5G has a major impact on the speeds a user will see.

We analyzed T-Mobile’s mmWave 5G service separately from its 600MHz 5G service because at the time of our testing in December and January a potential customer had to choose a 5G smartphone model that either supported mmWave 5G on T-Mobile or one that supported 600MHz 5G on T-Mobile. There was no model available that supported both. The first phone to offer that capability will be the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G which is available from March 6 which uses a newer 5G chipset.

The speeds Opensignal found reflect U.S. operators’ different deployment strategies for their 5G networks:
  • mmWave high-band 5G: Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T launched mmWave 5G networks across a number of cities, although AT&T’s service is only available to business customers and select early adopters. 
  • Mid-band 5G: Sprint is using its mid-band 2.5 GHz for 5G and possesses enough spectrum to deliver hundreds of Mbps in speed, with a decent signal propagation. Sprint states it has citywide coverage in locations where it has launched its service.
  • Low-band 5G: T-Mobile and AT&T re-used 4G spectrum from their 850 MHz and 600 MHz holdings and launched 5G services using low-band spectrum in December 2019. U.S. operators have been more conservative in their speed claims for low-band 5G services, but they will offer much wider coverage when compared to high and mid-band 5G.

Devices connected to T-Mobile & Sprint’s lower-band 5G five times as often as to Verizon’s mmWave 5G

Opensignal also conducted tests around the downtown areas of cities where U.S. operators had stated they had launched their 5G services to understand how often speed tests would be on 5G. In our testing, finding a 5G signal often proved challenging.

On T-Mobile’s 600Mhz 5G network we saw the greatest time connected to 5G of 53.0%. We were able to connect to a 5G signal just over half of the time during our testing on T-Mobile’s 600 MHz and slightly less on Sprint’s 2.5GHz 5G networks. With both T-Mobile’s mmWave and AT&T’s 850 MHz 5G networks we spent 10.6% of the time connected to a 5G signal during the walk tests, while we connected to a 5G signal on Verizon’s mmWave 5G just 6% of the time.

Opensignal recorded the fastest average combined 4G/5G download speeds on Sprint’s network

In Opensignal tests we saw speeds of several hundred Mbps on 5G mmWave networks but devices found a 5G signal 10.6% or less of the time on this type of 5G, while devices connecting to low-band 5G networks found signal about half of the time but saw far slower speeds compared to high-band 5G.

We calculated a combined 4G/5G download speed taking into account how much time devices spent connected to each 5G network during the walk tests, to understand which 5G service had the biggest impact on the download speeds we observed.

Taking into account both time on 5G and average download speeds, out of the five consumer 5G services tested, only Sprint exceeded the 100 Mbps threshold in average combined 4G/5G download speed tests. Despite offering slower average 5G download speeds than mmWave, Sprint’s mid-band 5G had a much greater impact on our combined download speed — which averaged 109.8 Mbps — because we were able to connect to 5G almost half of the time.

What these early 5G test results really mean

It’s still just the start of the 5G era, so it’s early to draw definitive conclusions on the future of 5G. But some trends are starting to show:

U.S. carriers’ 5G services are held back by 5G spectrum availability. Without the availability of new 5G mid-band spectrum, U.S. wireless operators have launched 5G services on a variety of spectrum frequencies that they had available, spanning from 600 MHz to 28 GHz. We believe that all U.S. operators will need to complement their holdings with more mid-band spectrum to take advantage of the sweet spot which 3-6 GHz frequencies provide in the trade-off between low bands’ wide reach and high bands’ super-fast speeds. At the moment, Sprint — soon the new T-Mobile when the Sprint/T-Mobile merger closes — is the only operator that owns spare mid-band spectrum that can be used for 5G.

mmWave 5G really is extremely fast. Speeds will depend on the type of 5G — low frequency band, mid-band or mmWave — and consequently on the amount of spectrum that operators have available for their 5G users. Opensignal measured how different spectrum band provides different benefits: mmWave allows for high capacity and super-fast speeds which would be advantageous in specific areas like crowded stadiums, whereas low-band 5G’s biggest benefit — its extended reach — allows for the creation of a diffused 5G coverage layer, with a limited uplift in terms of speed.

Users should not automatically expect speeds of several hundred Mbps on 5G. All of the 5G speeds we see are fast by U.S. standards, but seeing a 5G icon on the screen is no guarantee of 5G, or of speeds of hundreds of Mbps, instead real-world testing at scale will be needed to quantify the true 5G experience. Users need to look at the real-world 5G experience of each operator to understand what 5G means.

Mike Dano, Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies recently did a long presentation on titled Defining actual 5G, and what it might do, looking at the 5G deployments and strategies in the USA. His slides are available here and the video is embedded below.

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