Quantifying the US Urban 5G Experience: Understanding mmWave 5G

As 5G continues to roll out across the U.S. and adoption of 5G expands with both more reach and the use of mid-band frequency bands that offer higher national speeds, Opensignal takes its first look at the 5G experience in U.S. cities in the first of a new series of insights into 5G in the U.S. Previously, we’ve analyzed the U.S. 5G User Mobile Network Experience by carrier nationally, compared 5G across different smartphone brands in advance of the 5G iPhone launch, and looked at the extent to which increased network capacity has allowed users to consume more mobile data on 5G.

But 5G is not one single experience. The type of 5G spectrum used by carriers greatly affects the experience that users enjoy. Some of these spectrum bands are more commonly used in cities and so it’s important to look at these urban locations separately from national measures.

Looking at five U.S. cities — Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, New York and Washington DC — we see the average 5G Download Speed using Verizon is very significantly faster than the other U.S. carriers. In every city, the average 5G Download Speed is over three times faster using Verizon than on either AT&T or T-Mobile. However, most of these measurements were taken before Verizon’s launch of 5G using lower frequency bands which Verizon calls “nationwide 5G” and that change in technology will affect future results and likely cause the variation in the 5G experience on different carriers to narrow.

Strikingly, the average 5G Download Speed with T-Mobile in these five cities is higher than the 49.2 Mbps 5G Download Speed Opensignal users experienced in our last national 5G report, while AT&T average 5G Download Speed is about the same. There are a number of reasons for this difference. Since the data collection period used in that report, T-Mobile has since closed its merger with Sprint and re-purposed chunks of Sprint’s 2.5 GHz spectrum for a mid-band 5G launch, while AT&T has continued to use the same type of 5G spectrum. Also, T-Mobile has mmWave 5G live in some urban locations.

T-Mobile’s 2.5 GHz mid-band spectrum has a higher typical capacity than the 600MHz spectrum T-Mobile used for its initial national 5G launch that started in December 2019. This 600Mhz low-band 5G comprised almost all T-Mobile 5G measurements in Opensignal’s USA 5G User Report in June 2020.   

When we look at 5G Upload Speed we see a mixed picture. In two cities — New York and Washington DC — the 5G Upload Speeds we see using T-Mobile and Verizon are statistically tied ahead of AT&T. But in Houston AT&T is tied with T-Mobile with Verizon lagging and in Atlanta and in Los Angeles T-Mobile has a clear lead. 

However, all the 5G Upload Speeds we see are considerably slower than the 5G Download Speeds. In fact, with 5G we see the difference between average download speeds and average upload speeds is widening. Since May Verizon has been using 5G mmWave for upload data transfers while a smartphone is connected to 5G — before then 4G connectivity was used for upload even when a phone was in a 5G area.

But there is a difference in the reach of 5G for uploading data compared with downloading. This is because uploading is dependent on the more limited ability of a smartphone’s cellular radio power to create a strong signal to send data because of the constraints of a small smartphone battery and antennas. As a result a smartphone needs a stronger 5G connection, and likely be closer to a 5G cell site, to be able to use 5G to upload data than it is to use 5G for download. 

Since our last look at 5G and mmWave in February, AT&T has expanded mmWave 5G access to all of its users. AT&T uses the name 5G Plus to indicate mmWave service while Verizon names it 5G Ultra Wideband instead.

mmWave 5G is one of the most interesting parts of the U.S. 5G rollout so far because the U.S. is far ahead of the rest of the world in the use of this kind of 5G spectrum. Apple recognizes this leadership position because only U.S. iPhone 12 models will include mmWave 5G support as standard. All three U.S. operators hold mmWave 5G spectrum and have made deployments, but Verizon has been the biggest proponent of mmWave among carriers by far, and until Verizon’s “nationwide” 5G launch in October was alone in exclusively using mmWave for its 5G services. 

Across the five cities where we have looked at the 5G experience, we see average mmWave 5G speeds over 100 Mbps on all three carriers. However, using Verizon our measurements show a mmWave 5G Download Speed score that is approximately twice as fast as that on T-Mobile. mmWave is important because at its extremely high frequencies (band n260 uses 37 - 40 GHz, while n261 is 27.5 - 28.35 GHz) there is substantial amounts of wireless capacity available — hundreds of MHz — which has never been used for cellular services before and so can support more users simultaneously with vastly greater data usage. These benefits have persuaded carriers and smartphone chipset makers it is worth deploying despite its noted downsides such as limited propagation, need for greatly increased numbers of cell sites, plus additional complexity and cost in smartphone handset designs.  

In future, all carriers will deploy multiple types of 5G spectrum which will work in tandem to offer the best possible mobile experience for users. But today, each U.S. carrier has had to work with the spectrum they have currently available, until further 5G spectrum auctions happen and the mid-band 5G assets auctioned by the FCC in mid-2020 become available for use. Like mmWave, these upcoming U.S. mid-band frequencies have never been used for cellular service before and so add enormously valuable capacity as well as the ability to reach further from each base station than mmWave 5G. We will analyze further aspects of the U.S. 5G experience in upcoming insights in this series.