5G in USA is here, but in need of fresh spectrum to thrive

While operators have launched commercial 5G services in a number of countries in 2019, the experience of 5G users is still extremely uneven. 

In our most recent look at 5G, Opensignal reveals that in the U.S. just 1% of speed tests we conducted from 5G New Radio (5G NR) enabled devices used an active 5G connection, compared with 20% of speed tests conducted in early 5G leader South Korea. Instead, the remaining tests were mostly completed using existing 4G technology.

This combination of technologies is possible because the current 5G deployments are using “non-standalone access” (NSA) where a smartphone must maintain a 4G connection even when 5G is available. From 2020, carriers will start offering standalone access where 5G will be able to operate independently.

While U.S. 5G users enjoy the highest maximum speed across countries where carriers have launched 5G services, reach is more problematic in the U.S. than in other countries because of spectrum challenges. In South Korea, all three operators have launched extensive 5G services in 85 cities using “mid-band” 5G spectrum in the 3.x GHz range which offers a good balance of both reach and speed. The country now boasts over 3 million 5G customers in a total population of around 51 million people.

U.S. carriers face very limited availability of key 5G spectrum bands that are popular in other countries. While South Korea, Australia and Europe are exclusively using new “mid-band” 3.x GHz bands for 5G services now, in the U.S. these bands have existing users, which means the U.S. is forced to try a new shared usage model on these bands — called CBRS — rather than carriers being able to exclusively deploy 5G on these bands.

Instead, Verizon and T-Mobile are currently only offering mmWave 5G services — that have extremely limited geographic reach because of the very high frequencies used — while Sprint is repurposing an existing 4G spectrum band at 2.5 GHz. In no country other than the U.S. has Opensignal seen commercial 5G mmWave services alongside sub-6Ghz 5G services to date. AT&T has 5G mmWave deployed in 19 cities but is only offering the service to select business customers

Today, 5G’s reach in the U.S. is focused on major cities, emphasizing the strong U.S rural-urban divide in all Americans’ mobile network experience that Opensignal has recently analyzed.

Against these challenges, U.S. carriers are looking to upcoming spectrum auctions to add new bands — especially 3.7 GHz - 4.2 GHz bands — that should offer improved reach as well as higher capacity to boost 5G in the country and ensure that the U.S. is a leader in strategic technologies like 5G. Opensignal believes the U.S. mobile industry must work together on spectrum issues so 5G is not just “here”, but is really here.