WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
5G can be delivered using a varieties of spectrum and T-Mobile just used their lowband spectrum to push 5G nationwide.
Months after the US Department of Defense warned that the US is falling behind China when it comes to 5G development and roll out there’s a new national 5G network in the US after T-Mobile just flipped the switch their new 5G “nationwide network” a bit earlier than expected, and they’re calling it a nationwide network in order to clearly differentiate this type of 5G network, which uses a mix of low band and mid band spectrum, from the “true” super-fast but ultra short distance millimetre wave 5G signals that the company started rolling out last summer. The new network covers about 200 million Americans but for now at least it won’t offer the same blazing fast speeds we’ve seen on previous 5G deployments and you can consider this announcement as the transitional step between moving from today’s 4G and tomorrow’s full on 5G networks.
So far all four US carriers have deployed some millimetre wave 5G because the first round of 5G modems focused mainly on those types of bands, but so far only AT&T and Verizon have been keen to sing the praises of millimeter wave 5G by showing off speed tests that cross into the gigabit range.
Indeed, millimeter wave can offer extremely high download and upload speeds provided you have line of sight to the cell site and are very close to it, but while these high frequencies carry a lot of data they can’t penetrate buildings, and get blocked when people turn in a certain direction – which, let’s face it makes them in some cases as useful as a chocolate teapot.
With its latest announcement T-Mobile has now made good on its promise to lean heavily on low-band spectrum as the backbone of its core national 5G network, something that they laid the initial foundations of when they bought a chunk of 600MHz spectrum covering all of the US in the FCC’s spectrum auction back in 2017. At the time they deployed some of this as LTE but reserved a large slice of it for their future 5G ambitions which, in a clever move, meant that they didn’t have to re-farm existing spectrum or use technology like Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) in order to get 5G working across their 600MHz airwaves – something that gave them a massive advantage in the race to roll out 5G nationally and let them roll out 5G, as they have today, by just pushing a software update and flicking a magenta switch as opposed to having to install a whole new range of hardware and cell equipment.
As you can see from T-Mobile’s new coverage map in the video they’ve got 5G covering most major urban areas now but there is substantial 5G in rural regions as well – and that’s a major differentiator. This 600MHz spectrum is uniquely suited to beaming 5G signals over long distances to get more people covered. Meanwhile, AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint are focusing on urban areas where their shorter-range signals can get the fastest speeds and do some good, and while Sprint’s 2.5GHz band is better for range than millimeter wave, it’s still not as good as 600MHz.
The speed boost from low band 5G is still unclear, though. There are just two phones on sale that use T-Mobile’s new 5G network – the $900 OnePlus 7T Pro McLaren 5G and the $1,300 Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ 5G. Both will start shipping this week, at which time customers will finally get to try the new network in all its glory.
Meanwhile, Sascha Segan pan analyst following 5G, predicts that 600MHz 5G will boost speeds by about 50Mbps over 4G devices. That’s not huge, but T-Mobile plans to add more 5G bands down the road and Sprint’s 2.5GHz spectrum could give T-Mobile’s 5G a big boost if it can complete the merger.