The 5G of T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T all rank badly for different reasons

wireless network
According to a recent Opensignal report, T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T all look kind of bad in different metrics measuring their 5G performance. (Getty Images)

According to a recent Opensignal report, T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T all look kind of bad in different metrics measuring their 5G performance. 

Verizon was lacking in the amount of time consumers could find a 5G signal on its network. Opensignal conducted tests around the downtown areas of cities where U.S. operators had stated they had launched their 5G services. “In our testing, finding a 5G signal often proved challenging,” wrote Opensignal. The company was able to connect to a 5G signal on Verizon’s mmWave network just 6% of the time.

Opensignal chart 2

T-Mobile fared much better in terms of testers being able to find its 5G network. But T-Mobile’s 600 MHz network was the worst in terms of download speeds, followed closely by AT&T. “AT&T and T-Mobile’s low-band 5G networks clocked average download speeds of 59.3 Mbps and 47.5 Mbps respectively,” found Opensignal.

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Opensignal chart 1

“There are ways to deliver 5G that doesn't deliver the speeds or latency that are defined by the 3GPP,” said Walt Piecyk, analyst with LightShed Partners. In terms of the speeds reported by Opensignal on T-Mobile’s 600 MHz network, Piecyk said, “Something like 47 Mbps is not what the industry was thinking about when they were defining 5G. However, that’s traffic that is going over a 5G NR radio.”

Piecyk finds it ironic that when AT&T put the icon 5GE on some phones in late 2018, the carrier caught heavy flak from T-Mobile and others. “When everyone was criticizing AT&T for 5GE, my point was, AT&T had been aggregating spectrum and deploying a lot at one time, so they put 5GE on their phones because the user was seeing faster speeds,” said Piecyk. “So now we’re at a point where companies that were criticizing AT&T for doing 5GE, they’re deploying versions of 5G that have even slower speeds.”

RELATED: AT&T to begin upgrading existing LTE phones to ‘5G E’

Why are U.S. carriers struggling so hard to deliver 5G with high speeds and good coverage? The answer boils down to one word: spectrum.

The Opensignal report concludes: “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 a recent Verizon investor meeting, David Barden, an analyst with Bank of America Merrill Lynch, summed up the 5G situation in the United States fairly succinctly. “T-Mobile has been deploying a low-band layer to say that they have 5G everywhere. AT&T is re-farming their 800 to say that they have 5G everywhere. I'm not clear what Verizon's plan is yet in terms of trying to say that they have 5G everywhere,” he said.

Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg said the company will launch nationwide 5G based on dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) later this year “when we think it's commercially right, when we see it's enough handsets out in the market.”

But Piecyk pointed out, “Download speeds will always be limited by the amount of spectrum allocated.” He said in the past, when networks transitioned from one G to the next, they always used new, clean spectrum. But for the transition to 5G, there hasn’t been any new low-band or mid-band spectrum dedicated specifically to New Radio. So the industry has innovated DSS to flip back and forth between 4G and 5G.

Dynamic Spectrum Sharing

On its recent Q4 2019 earnings call with investors, T-Mobile President of Technology Neville Ray said DSS was running behind schedule, although he didn’t name any specific DSS vendors. 

However, last week Ericsson announced that its DSS is now generally available and being used by several service providers. And an Ericsson executive said its DSS was on schedule with the road map it had been providing to customers.

RELATED: Ericsson defends dynamic spectrum sharing

Ray also said issues with DSS had come to light, including detriments to spectrum capacity. “We’re seeing as we learn more, that as you deploy DSS it kind of eats away on the net capacity of the shared radio,” Ray said. “If you rush into that now, some of the early rollouts and work arounds…that we’ve seen are pretty corrosive and would suck up capacity just by rolling out the feature.”

At Verizon’s analyst day, Verizon CTO Kyle Malady said that without DSS the company would need clean spectrum to add 5G “and then get new phones to go on to that spectrum, which is really a big coordination effort.” But with DSS Verizon can roll out 5G using the same spectrum as 4G, sharing the spectrum between the two.

“But it doesn't give us extra capacity,” said Malady. “As a matter of fact, there's a slight capacity hit because of it,” he said. “What happens in DSS, you need to have 4G signaling and 5G signaling in the same band. Therefore, that signaling takes up a little bit of your capacity. But we've known this, so that's why a year ago or more, we started adding more 4G capacity so we can take care of this.”

The only way to get the large amounts of extra capacity really needed for 5G networks in the U.S. is to obtain more spectrum.

T-Mobile stands to benefit mightily when it closes on the Sprint deal, and gets its hands on Sprint’s mid-band spectrum. For its part, Verizon plans to participate in the C-Band spectrum auctions, which should begin in December of this year.

RELATED: Amid heated debate, FCC votes 3-2 to free up 280 MHz of C-band for 5G

Recently, Jeff McElfresh, CEO of AT&T Communications, noted that he was comfortable with AT&T's current spectrum position but that the industry could always use more. “He indicated AT&T was better positioned than competitors given deeper low and midband holdings,” wrote Wells Fargo analyst Jennifer Fritzsche. McElfresh pointed to C-Band as an opportunity.

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