Verizon’s network at 57% of capacity, highest in the world, according to new study

Rewheel used an equation of macro sites and spectrum to derive its network capacity figures. (Rewheel)

According to a new study of 80 wireless network operators across the globe by Helsinki-based research firm Rewheel, Verizon was the operator with the highest yearly average network capacity utilization, at 57% in 2017.

“Most mobile operators utilized in 2017, similarly to 2016, a fraction (below 20%) of their readily available network capacity,” the firm wrote in its report. “The United States was the country with the highest capacity utilization of 33% in 2017 even though the U.S. mobile networks carried in average only 4 GB per person per month (U.S. ranked fourteenth in mobile data usage per capita).”

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Rewheel, a mobile data strategy, competition and network economics consultancy, said it applied a relatively simple mathematical equation to derive its network capacity calculations: capacity equals macro sites times spectrum.

Of course, the firm noted there are a wide range of caveats to its calculations, including estimates it made in some cases in terms of average customer data usage as well as the total number of macro sites operators have deployed.

For Verizon specifically the firm wrote that “operators in the Nordics, Austria and Korea have 5 to 10 times denser macro site grids than operators in the United States or Canada and hence much higher capacity potential (i.e. 3.6 GHz massive MIMO deployed on macro sites).”

The firm added that, for example, Elisa in Finland has over 7,000 macro sites for 5.5 million pop (734 pop/site) while Verizon in the United States has 58,000 macro sites for 326 million pop (5,587 pop/site). Further, Elisa has 252 MHz of spectrum while Verizon has 114 MHz only.

“It is important to note that the capacity utilization figures we calculate assume that operators have deployed—where needed—all of their available FDD, SDL and TDD (2500/2600) spectrum holdings,” the firm added. “So, it is the capacity utilization of the readily available macro site grid capacity resources rather than the capacity utilization of the spectrum and equipment actually deployed by operators in their sites in 2017. For example, the capacity utilization of an operator in its top 5% most loaded sectors could be substantially higher than the figures we present herein simply because that given operator has not deployed its 2600 FDD or TDD spectrum (even though they have it) and/or because they still use most of their 900 and 1800 spectrum for GSM service.”

Moreover, Verizon itself has made a concerted effort to deploy small cells and other network densification techniques that may not be recorded in the firm's findings. Indeed, Verizon chose not to participate in the FCC’s recent 600 MHz spectrum auction, which could indicate that the operator isn’t struggling with overwhelming network traffic. Further, Verizon at the beginning of last year introduced an unlimited data option, again potentially indicating its network could handle additional traffic.

AT&T and T-Mobile in the U.S. ranked among the top 10 operators in terms of higher network capacity usage. AT&T is using 32% of its network capacity while T-Mobile is using 28% of its network capacity, according to the firm.

Neither Verizon nor any other wireless network operator publicly discusses its network capacity.

“Elisa in Finland was the operator with the highest mobile data and spectrum usage per capita in the world and as well the operator with the highest fixed-to-mobile broadband substitution potential,” Rewheel wrote, noting that the Finnish wireless network operator commands the highest ratio of available spectrum and network sites per user.

And that, the firm said, indicates Finland’s mobile networks could well stand as a viable alternative to the nation’s wired networks even if users consumed up to 200 GB per month on those wireless networks.

Article updated Sept. 11 with additional commentary from Rewheel.