It’s hard not to notice how much attention 5G has been getting lately. It’s been the top story on the evening news, the most prominent story on major news sites, and the topic of much discussion recently. Unfortunately, a lot has been confusing to people outside the wireless industry, largely due to concerns raised by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and the aviation community.
What’s really happening is that two of the big three US telecom carriers have just enabled the use of some important new midrange frequencies for 5G called C-Band that promised to finally bring them into the modern era. . In the meantime, T-Mobile has used a different set of midrange frequencies (which they acquired through their merger with Sprint two years ago) to continue building their own fast 5G network. (Like many recent comparative speed tests from companies like Ok so and Signal open showed, this strategy worked pretty well for T-Mobile, but we’ll get into the details a bit later.)
To really understand all of this, you need to understand a few basics of how cellular networks work. All wireless networks use radio waves at different frequencies to send and receive signals. To avoid interference with each other, as well as with other devices, companies acquire exclusive rights to use different frequencies from the FCC, which oversees and manages this process for the United States.
With previous cellular networks, like 3G and 4G, all frequencies were within a limited range of about 600 MHz to 1.9 GHz (think of it like different stations on a radio dial). One of the unique features of 5G is that it has opened up the possibility of using different frequency ranges to enable faster speeds and more capabilities. Low-band frequencies, below 1 GHz, were enabled for 5G by the three major US carriers when the service first became available, the experience, although faster than 4G for download speeds , was not significantly different for most people. The high band, mmWave frequencies (28 GHz), was also enabled for 5G use a few years ago. These frequencies offer the possibility of very fast speeds, but travel only very short distances and are blocked by things like windows, walls, trees, or even people. As a result, they are only really useful for specialized environments like stadiums, and too expensive to be widely used for general-purpose networks.
Mid frequencies (typically around 2.5 to just under 6 GHz), on the other hand, have the right combination of speed and coverage to make them ideal for large and fast 5G networks. In fact, virtually all 5G networks in the world are based exclusively at these mid-frequencies. T-Mobile’s executive management was aware of these possibilities, and the combination of T-Mobile’s low-band and mmWave spectrum with Sprint’s critical midrange frequencies is what prompted T-Mobile’s merger with Sprint. The result was that T-Mobile got a big two-year head start on planning and building a modern midband-based 5G network here in the United States. It’s a lead the company continues to enjoy today.
Other carriers bet on mmWave early, and when they pivoted to focus on midrange much later than T-Mobile, they had to wait for the FCC to make critical midrange frequencies available for cellular network use. . Previously, these waves had been used for applications such as large satellite dishes and Department of Defense targets. Interest in licensing these essential medium frequencies, also known as C-band (3.7-3.98 GHz), was so high that collectively more than $80 billion – an FCC record – was spent to access it at a major auction that closed last year. Also, last week the final details of another radio spectrum auction that brought in an additional $22 billion were announced (auction 110 for frequencies 3.45-3.55 GHz). Collectively, these two auctions finally give US carriers access to the critical mid-band RF spectrum they need to build world-class 5G networks.
For AT&T and Verizon, these frequencies allowed them to start the process of building and activating their midband 5G networks, hence the recent coverage. For T-Mobile, on the other hand, these new frequencies are simply additions to their existing large mid-band 5G networks using the 2.5-2.6 GHz frequency bands. To put it numerically, AT&T has activated 40 MHz of C-band 5G spectrum in eight cities, Verizon has activated 60 MHz of C-band spectrum in 46 markets, but T-Mobile has run about 80 MHz of its 2.5 GHz across the majority of its national mid-band footprint. That’s why the previously mentioned speed tests show a big lead in download performance for T-Mobile.
Understanding the basics of these frequency discussions also helps put alleged airline safety concerns into context. Devices in airplanes (and helicopters) called radio altimeters have been using frequencies in the 4.2-4.4 GHz range for decades. Even though the gap between the early C-band frequencies at 3.7 GHz and 4.2 GHz is huge from a radio signal perspective, some concerns have been raised about the possibility of interference. Because T-Mobile uses 2.5 GHz frequencies for its midband 5G, its network isn’t even part of the conversation — the gap between it and what radio altimeters use is even greater.
Going forward, all US carriers are expected to increase the amount of spectrum they use for 5G services across low, mid, and high band frequencies. This offers the promise of even faster 5G networks on the road. In the case of T-Mobile, the company bought a small portion of the C-band spectrum that it can start using in 2023 and in the recent 3.45 GHz auction, the company added about 20 MHz in most markets to help them add to what they already have.
Of course, there is more to building a network than simply owning spectrum licenses. You must build and equip cell towers all over the country with the right kinds of antennas and other equipment to send and receive these frequencies.
All told, we’ve finally entered a hugely exciting new era for 5G-one that is finally starting to deliver on the promises we first heard many years ago.
Achieving this goal, however, is not a short process and there are important steps to take to get there. There’s no doubt that the next few years will see some exciting developments in building these new 5G networks, but it’s also clear that not all carriers are starting from the same position.
Bob O’Donnell is the President and Chief Analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and the professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.
T-Mobile US, Inc. (NASDAQ: TMUS) is America’s supercharged carrier, delivering an advanced 4G LTE and transformative nationwide 5G network that will deliver reliable connectivity for everyone. T-Mobile customers benefit from its unmatched combination of value and quality, its unwavering obsession with providing them with the best possible service experience, and its unquestionable drive for disruption that creates competition and innovation in the wireless. thread and beyond. Headquartered in Bellevue, Washington, T-Mobile provides services through its subsidiaries and operates its flagship brands, T-Mobile, Metro by T-Mobile and Sprint. For more information, please visit: https://www.t-mobile.com.
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Source: T-Mobile US, Inc.