According to the marketing teams at all the U.S. Mobile Carriers, 5G has arrived and is nationwide! However, Q42020 testing by PC Magazine in 26 cities across the U.S. led them to remark “… AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s 5G feels a lot like 4G, and while Verizon’s 5G feels radically different, it has very little coverage.” So where is this amazing 5G service and when can you expect to benefit from all its promise?
Why 5G – Higher Capacity, Lower Latency, Increased Device Density
To answer that question, we need to take a step back and look at what 5G was designed to deliver. The GSMA lays out three primary 5G use cases:
- Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) – Higher capacity and speeds up to 100x faster than 4G LTE
- Ultra-reliable low latency communications (uRLLC) – Single-digit millisecond latency for latency-sensitive communications like autonomous driving, robotic control, virtual reality/augmented reality devices.
- Massive Machine Type Communications (mMTC) – connections to a large number of devices that transmit small amounts of data (i.e. Internet of Things – IOT)
Use case 1 is the 5G we have all heard and seen advertised on TV, lightning-fast downloads (movies downloaded in seconds!). From a business perspective, this means that 5G based connections will eventually be able to offer fixed wireless access at competitive speeds.
Use cases 2 and 3 looks to the future when field employees use augmented reality to diagnose triage and repair equipment, and IoT device density grows to 1000’s per sq KM. These are tomorrow’s challenges and reflect the vision of the 5G networks of 2022 and beyond.
Network Deployment and Spectrum Choices Define 5G Performance
Two 5G deployment choices and three different spectrum choices make understanding which 5G you are connected to a bit of challenge and explains the wide variation in your experience.
Network Deployment (Radio & Mobile Core)
Recall that mobile networks are made up of two major components, the radio at the cell site and a core which handles the routing and processing of mobile connections. 3GPP (Global Initiative creating standards for mobile networks) defines two different 5G network deployment choices:
- NSA (Non-Stand Alone): Radio used is 5G New Radio (NR) and the core part remains an LTE Evolved Packet Core (EPC). Easy way to remember – (5G Radio + LTE Core = NSA).
- SA (Stand-Alone). If the radio part is 5G NR and the core is a 5G core; then the deployment is called Stand Alone (5G Radio + 5G Core = SA). The diagram below from GSMA depicts it best.
For both NSA and SA deployments, new radio network technology (NR) is being used. New radio will satisfy use cases 1 and 2, delivering the high bandwidth needed for applications like virtual reality, 8K video, etc.
For a mobile carrier that is focused on delivering high-speed connectivity to their customers, a 5G NSA deployment would be enough at the start. This is how U.S. Carriers started and 5G NSA is the foundation for their 5G offers today. However, each carrier has announced its intention to move to a nationwide 5G SA deployment. Timelines vary, but nationwide 5G SA is not likely until 2022 and beyond.
5G gives carriers more choices in terms of spectrum than LTE did. For the first time, carriers can leverage “high-band,” short-range airwaves that didn’t work with LTE technology. With high-band now in the mix, there are three kinds of 5G spectrum carriers can choose from—low-band, mid-band, and high-band—and while the U.S. carriers initially put their bets on low and high, it turns out that mid-band might be the goldilocks spectrum for 5G. So much so that these carriers just spent a combined $80B in the most recent FCC auction for licenses to use this mid-band goldilocks spectrum.
The kind of spectrum, low, mid, or high-band determines how much coverage a single radio can provide. Low-band spectrum provides the broadest coverage. So, if you a looking to market a nationwide 5G footprint, then using low-band spectrum leads to the least number of new radios. High-band or mmWave spectrum has the least coverage by far. In most cases it is line-of-sight coverage, meaning if you cannot see the mobile radio tower you probably won’t get a 5G mmWave connection. From a coverage perspective, mid-band spectrum falls in between high and low.
The amount of spectrum that a carrier can assign to 5G plays a significant role in determining the throughput speed their subscribers will experience. With LTE, in theory, carriers can combine up to seven, 20MHz channels to use a total of 140MHz of spectrum. Most of the time, though, LTE phones are using 60MHz or less. When using low and mid-band 5G, carriers can combine two 100MHz channels, for 200MHz of spectrum. In high-band 5G, can use up to eight 100MHz channels. However, this assumes that all the spectrum is available.
5G Offerings Today
As most carriers do not have that much spectrum currently available in the low-bands, today’s 5G experience for carriers using low-band spectrum is not that much different than LTE (because when using smaller amounts of spectrum 5G performance looks very similar to LTE).
Verizon has a significant amount of high-band spectrum as a result of their acquisition of XO Communications, so when you are within the coverage of their 5G Ultra Wideband network, you can experience speeds that are 10X that of today’s LTE networks. T-Mobile, as a result of their acquisition of Sprint, acquired a significant amount of mid-band spectrum and has been augmenting their low-band 5G coverage with this goldilocks spectrum. This has allowed T-Mobile to deliver a higher speed on their consumer 5G offer than AT&T and Verizon across a broader coverage area. The graphic below breaks down the consumer and fixed wireless 5G offers and the spectrum and technologies underlying each.
SVP Mobile Product and Business Development
Bob is responsible for Globalgig’s strategic mobile product initiatives. Bob brings in-depth experience in mobile data solutions including IoT connectivity, private LTE/5G networks, and MVNOs. Prior to Globalgig, Bob held senior leadership positions at Federated Wireless, Kajeet, Nextel, and Nextel International. Bob holds a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and MBA from the University of Pittsburgh.