mmWave 5G provides a big capacity boost to US users in high-traffic areas

After initially launching their 5G services on mmWave, AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile have all expanded their 5G deployments by launching on sub-6 GHz bands. However, mmWave 5G offers the potential for the greatest leap in both speed and capacity, although many of these strengths have been overlooked based on findings from early mmWave deployments with limited reach. 

Opensignal has now analyzed the amount of mobile data our users consumed on mmWave 5G networks and compared that to the amount of mobile data used on sub-6 GHz 5G and 4G. With mobile data usage rising in the U.S. and globally, wireless carriers need to evaluate mmWave technology because of the vast amount of additional capacity it offers.

We found that in the locations where mmWave 5G was available, mmWave 5G users were able to consume 4.5 times more data compared with 4G, and 2.4 times more than other types of 5G using sub-6 GHz spectrum bands in an identical period of time. These significant differences prove the ability of mmWave 5G to boost mobile capacity and help to minimize mobile network congestion.

When we considered the total mobile data consumed by all our U.S. users in the month of July 2021, we saw that 90.7% of that mobile data was consumed on 4G networks. Only 9.3% was consumed on 5G networks.

As we expected, the share of mobile data consumed over 5G varied across the three national carriers: 17.4% of mobile data consumed by our T-Mobile users was on 5G, followed by 9.8% for our AT&T users, and 4.2% for our Verizon users. These values reflect in large part the difference in 5G Availability — the time users spent with an active 5G connection — among the three carriers. In fact, in our latest U.S. 5G Experience report, we found that our T-Mobile users spent a considerably higher amount of time connected to 5G networks — 36.3%, followed by AT&T and Verizon at 22.5% and 10.5%, respectively. 

When we analyzed the mobile data consumed by our mmWave 5G users — the subset of our U.S. users that we have seen connecting to mmWave 5G — we observed that 5G accounted for a much larger share of the total mobile data consumed. Our T-Mobile users who connected to mmWave 5G consumed 58.6% of their mobile data on 5G networks, followed by AT&T at 41.3% and Verizon at 18.7%. However, current mmWave services work best outdoors, and because people generally spend most of their time indoors, mmWave's share of mobile data usage remained relatively low. This will change when U.S. carriers deploy mmWave 5G antennas indoors in more urban venues.

In locations where mmWave exists our users had a different experience. MmWave 5G accounted for 2.9% of the total mobile data consumed by our mmWave 5G users in the U.S., which represented 10.5% of the total mobile data consumed over 5G networks, including over sub-6 GHz bands.

Because mmWave 5G is so fast, users do not need to be connected to it for very long to download a file or complete whatever task they have in mind. To allow for this bursty experience, we compared our users’ data consumption with mmWave 5G, sub-6 GHz 5G and 4G over an identical period of time when each technology was connected to understand the capacity uplift that mmWave 5G can offer. In mmWave areas, our mmWave 5G users were able to consume 1.8 times as much mobile data on sub-6 GHz 5G as they consumed during the same period of time on 4G networks. But that increased to 4.5 times when we looked at the data they were able to consume using mmWave 5G compared to 4G.

AT&T mmWave users consumed 15.6 times more data on mmWave 5G relative to 4G within a similar amount of time compared to Verizon users’ 4.2. While the total mobile data consumed on mmWave 5G for AT&T was 3.6%, compared to Verizon’s 3.1% (see chart 1 above). This indicates that our AT&T mmWave 5G users on average spent a lower amount of time connected to mmWave 5G compared to our mmWave 5G users on Verizon, but when they did connect to mmWave 5G, they consumed a much larger amount of data. Therefore, Opensignal data suggests that, while Verizon has made the most effort to expanding its mmWave 5G service, AT&T appears to have focused on limited high-traffic areas — including selected venues and airports — where users benefit even more from mmWave 5G’s vast capacity and consume even more data as a result.

How mmWave 5G and sub-6 GHz 5G fit into US carriers’ strategies

U.S. carriers’ deployment strategies around mmWave are very different compared to their plans with sub-6 GHz frequency bands. In fact, while operators have often used sub-6 GHz bands to create a coverage layer and serve as the backbone of their users’ 5G experience, mmWave networks are intended to add capacity in high-traffic dense urban areas and venues, when that is needed.

In our past analysis, we saw how mmWave 5G offers users very fast download speeds, and that our users spent relatively low amounts of time connected to mmWave 5G because of the ability of mmWave to complete a task so fast.

Now, Opensignal data shows that mmWave networks in the U.S. are already supporting a significant amount of mobile data traffic in those locations where mmWave is deployed, and that when users connect to mmWave they are able to consume much higher amounts of mobile data relative to the amounts of data they consumed on 4G or sub-6 GHz 5G over a similar period of time. This showcases the capacity role of mmWave 5G networks for users when they need it, as we expect that most carriers will need to eventually use mmWave to boost their network capacity in busy locations to offer the best possible 5G experience to their users.