mmWave 5G remains elusive for U.S. consumers - Opensignal

Opensignal users connected to mmWave 5G less than 1% of the time on average across each of the three nationwide carriers. (Getty Images)

Despite early millimeter wave spectrum auctions and large carrier holdings in high-frequency bands, new analysis from Opensignal shows mmWave 5G connections are still rare for U.S. consumers.

Over a 90-day period, Opensignal users connected to mmWave 5G less than 1% of the time on average across each of the three nationwide carriers.

Perhaps unsurprisingly Verizon had the “best” for time connected, but only at a mere 0.8%, compared to 0.5% for both AT&T and T-Mobile users. However, Opensignal noted in the report that confidence intervals overlap, leaving a statistical tie between Verizon and AT&T.

The U.S. was quick to open up access to mmWave spectrum for commercial 5G. The FCC held three recent auctions, the first in 2019, which together offered licenses in the 24 GHz, 28 GHz, 37 GHz, 39 GHz, and 47 GHz bands.

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Verizon in particular focused heavily on mmWave for 5G early on with its Ultra Wideband service, which delivers on speed but is very limited in coverage with short-range signals that are easily blocked. This year attention has shifted to forthcoming mid-band deployments with C-band spectrum in the 3.7 GHz frequency. AT&T and T-Mobile also have mmWave-based service – dubbed 5G+ and Ultra Capacity 5G, respectively. T-Mobile’s "Ultra Capacity" moniker also includes its 5G service using mid-band 2.5 GHz, but Opensignal separated out mmWave-specific results.

Consumers got access to AT&T’s 5G+ service in March 2020. Before that it was only available for select business customers. AT&T has targeted high-density areas including airports for mmWave, largely using 39 GHz.  

RELATED: AT&T’s mmWave 5G takes off at Tampa airport

For those that can find a signal, Verizon’s mmWave 5G delivered the fastest download speeds, averaging 692.9 Mbps. AT&T mmWave 5G users averaged 232.7 Mbps and T-Mobile subscribers hit 215.3 Mbps.

The lack of mmWave coverage also reflects where carriers like T-Mobile, have put their attention. Although early mmWave markets were launched T-Mobile first aimed for broad coverage using low-band 600 MHz, followed by 2.5 GHz deployments since completing its Sprint merger.

T-Mobile holds 5G speed lead across spectrum bands

With the early lead on mid-band, T-Mobile has been viewed as taking the front-runner position on "fast 5G" – where speeds are notably better than those seen with low-band 5G (AT&T and Verizon each deployed respective nationwide 5G, leaning on low-band or LTE spectrum and dynamic spectrum sharing).

A broader Opensignal report, also released Wednesday, on 5G experience overall (across low-, mid-and high-band) supports T-Mobile holding the pole position. The operator ranked first across four key metrics of 5G availability, reach, download and upload speeds.

RELATED: T-Mobile pushes position for long-term 5G leadership

“Our T-Mobile users have seen an enormous improvement in their average 5G download speeds since our last report,” Opensignal noted. The carrier’s score jumped 22.6% to 71.3 Mbps, up from 22.6%, which the testing company attributed to mid-band 2.5 GHz rollouts.

Comparatively, AT&T and Verizon users saw minor speed improvements of 1.2 Mbps and 0.3 Mbps, respectively.

“T-Mobile is clearly gaining a 5G speed advantage based on their current 5G spectrum lead, as both AT&T and Verizon have so far deployed 5G on their low-bands and mmWave spectrum, and have been lacking a strong 5G mid-band capacity layer,” Opensignal stated in the report.

T-Mobile’s 5G availability (or time spent connected) across bands was 33.1% compared to AT&T at 20.5% and Verizon at 11.2%. 5G reach, which is the proportion of places where users connect to 5G out of locations they’ve visited ranked on a scale of 1-10, showed T-Mobile scoring the highest at 6.8 followed by AT&T at 4.9 and Verizon at 3.2.

Performance rankings continue to vary though, as a recent RootMetrics analysis pegged AT&T as having the fastest 5G, while Ookla Speedtest data gave T-Mobile top speed marks in Q1.