As the end of a tumultuous 2020 approaches, the hype around 5G is in high gear. Apple’s recent 5G iPhone 12 announcement has gotten consumers excited about having the next generation of cellular connectivity in the palm of their hands. Operators worldwide are once again touting their respective 5G capabilities and network prowess. Many operators spent the majority of 2020 making big, albeit unfounded claims, further raising expectations. Amidst the hubbub, the big question remains—where do things actually stand concerning the performance and availability of 5G access and services for North American consumers? When I and my fellow Moor Insights & Strategy analyst, Anshel Sag, recently spoke with T-Mobile’s President of Technology, Neville Ray, we hoped to get some answers to that question. Amongst other things, we discussed 5G misconceptions, the importance of spectrum and some compelling use cases for the new technology. Here are our big takeaways from the discussion.
Spectrum is King
Both Mr. Sag and I have written abundantly about the importance of spectrum (you can read one of Mr. Sag’s more recent columns here). It is clear now that in order to deliver peak performance and enable propagation, operators must deploy 5G in low, mid and high spectrum bands. For those that find spectrum hard to decipher, here is a quick rundown:
- Low-band refers to the already licensed cellular bands below 2 GHz;
- Mid-band refers to bands ranging from 2 GHz to 6 GHz;
- High-band, also referred to as mmWave, refers to bands in the 24 GHz to 100 GHz range.
Mr. Ray often refers to T-Mobile’s footprint, spanning all of these tiers, as a “layer cake.” According to him, T-Mobile’s 5G coverage currently blankets 1.4M square miles in the United States. Compared to AT&T and Verizon’s claims of 600K and 400K square miles, respectively, this is very impressive if true. Lower bands drive longer propagation or transmission distances, albeit at slower speeds than mid-band or high-band. Higher bands deliver blazing performance but are plagued by interference, lower propagation and require densification to extend signal strength. The “magic” or “Goldilocks” mid-band is the most coveted, with a healthy balance of performance and transmission distance. We will delve into performance soon, but it is important to note that after closing the acquisition of Sprint, T-Mobile now has a complete spectrum footprint and the most available spectrum of any of its competitors. Spectrum gaps will likely close over time as AT&T and Verizon add to their holdings through CBRS/OnGo and other auctions, but this is where things currently stand.
In general, AT&T and Verizon have led the mmWave 5G charge, motivated by the monetization of their large subscriber base in major metropolitan areas. In contrast, T-Mobile has aggressively focused its initial efforts on the 600MHz range, spending $8B in a past FCC auction. Recently, it has begun to build out its mid-band assets, much of which was acquired through its acquisition of Sprint. Low-band has served as the bedrock for T-Mobile’s vast 5G network, which begs the question – was it a mistake for the others having not participated in that auction? It seems the answer is a definite yes. Now AT&T and Verizon are beginning to build out low-band, with Verizon placing emphasis on Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) between 4G LTE and 5G to fill coverage gaps. While DSS serves as a band-aid for 5G coverage, it does mean having to share spectrum with 4G users, dynamically adjusting spectrum resources based on demand. DSS is an important technology to improve 5G access and coverage. Still, it will not translate to the same improved speeds or latency that 5G standalone solutions will deliver in the long term.
Realizing 5G’s true potential
Depending on their spectrum holdings and market strategies, operators have taken different approaches to network deployment. AT&T’s early push to brand its Gigabit 4G LTE as 5GE introduced lots of confusion for consumers. In its defense, AT&T says LTE network densification is paving the way for its 5G deployment. T-Mobile, meanwhile, focuses on universal coverage, heralding “5G For All” in its marketing campaigns. Verizon focuses on speed with its recent Ultra-Wideband push (though competitors have challenged its 5G claims as misleading). The 5G marketing wars are so aggressive that all three major carriers have had to backpedal on some of their more grandiose 5G claims.
With all of that said, what good is 5G performance if coverage is limited? That is what Mr. Ray often calls out his competitors for on the T-Mobile magenta carpet. He claims that T-Mobile’s 5G performance in lower bands is nearly twice that of LTE. That effort took a relatively short amount of time, compared to the 5+ years it took to evolve 4G to Gigabit LTE. Mr. Ray also claims that T-Mobile’s 5G mid-band performance is 7-8 times faster than LTE, and, at the higher bands, an astounding 10 times faster. In the magic 2.5GHz mid-band, Mr. Ray says that T-Mobile sits at 35M today; however, he expects to end 2020 at nearly 100M and 200M by the end of 2021, driven by an addition rate of almost 2,000 new sites per month. Mr. Sag and I concur that T-Mobile’s 2.5 GHz mid-band deployment will not be as pervasive as its low-band. Still, it should be available in most medium to high-density areas, providing an impressive ~200 MHz of continuous spectrum.
One strategy that could soon help maximize 5G performance for all carrier networks is utilizing low-band spectrum for coverage and upload, while deploying mid-band for speed and download. Because coverage depends on uplink strength, using the band with the best coverage characteristics for upload could help improve mid-band coverage and make the overall 5G experience better for users. High-band performance is also benefiting from recent innovations by Qualcomm. Some operators are already demonstrating mmWave performance in the multi-Gigabits, and Mr. Sag has personally tested over 2 Gbps on the Verizon network in his hometown of San Diego. The reality is that mmWave will be optimal for dense subscriber areas where network capacity is most important. Thus, Verizon’s mmWave 5G network makes perfect sense for sporting and music venues given their number of concurrent users within a small area. I would expect that AT&T and T-Mobile’s mmWave 5G high-band deployments will follow similar principles. In fact, AT&T already deploys 5G services to enhance the fan experience at Dallas Cowboy football games.
Misconceptions abound around 5G, and Mr. Sag and I have attempted to address many on our weekly video podcast “The G2 on 5G,” found on YouTube and all major audio podcast platforms. Mr. Sag also penned a blog earlier this year, “What You Don’t Know, You Don’t Know About 5G,” debunking many of these misconceptions. We joked with Mr. Ray about some of our favorites, such as: mmWave is the only “real” 5G; 5G only operates in a single band of spectrum, and 5G causes cancer and Covid-19! None of these theories are correct, demonstrating the need for Mr. Sag and I to use Forbes as a platform for 5G education.
Exciting 5G use cases
We also discussed several compelling 5G use cases with Mr. Ray, such as leveraging 5G private networking to support enterprise automation, or to narrow the urban-rural “digital divide” exposed during the pandemic concerning distance learning and access to telemedicine resources. Towards the end of our discussion, Mr. Ray also shared one use case focused on EMTs (of personal importance, since one of his sons recently embarked on a career as an EMT). In a fully connected 5G world, imagine the lives that could be saved by streaming real-time, high definition video and vital statistics from an ambulance to the ER. With ubiquitous 5G coverage, this could soon be reality.
I recently described 5G to the Wall Street Journal, as a journey, not a light switch. Mr. Sag believes 5G is currently in its “toddler phase.” Though T-Mobile has laid early claim to full-spectrum coverage, it will take time for all operators to deploy the infrastructure necessary to achieve fully standalone network topologies. Operators will continue to acquire and fine-tune spectrum, and platforms such as DSS and network slicing will simplify deployment. The reality is that 5G, much like 4G, will be a decade-long journey to full actualization. As operators continue to build out their infrastructure and spectrum footprints, we will begin to see the benefits as consumers.
Note: Fellow analyst Anshel Sag contributed significantly to this article.