Quantifying the impact of C-band on 5G mobile experience in the US

Three years since the launch of the first 5G network in the U.S., carriers are still busy deploying their 5G networks. January 19th, 2022 marked a milestone for 5G deployments in the U.S. as Verizon and AT&T activated their C-band 5G networks, meaning that T-Mobile is not the only carrier using large swaths of mid-band spectrum for 5G anymore.

In this analysis, Opensignal takes its first look at the impact of the C-band launches on the 5G mobile experience. We analyzed the 5G speeds seen on the U.S. carriers when connected to mid-band 5G spectrum, using T-Mobile’s 5G experience on the 2.5 GHz band for comparison because T-Mobile is using 2.5 GHz for a similar purpose to C-band. However, T-Mobile has a head start as it started to deploy mid-band 2.5 GHz for 5G two years ago in April 2020.

Now, Opensignal data shows that AT&T and Verizon have started using their C-band spectrum for 5G in very different ways. While we observed widespread use of the C-band on Verizon — which produced a visible improvement to its users’ 5G Download Speed — our AT&T users rarely connected to mid-band 5G. These results are consistent with AT&T’s statements on its smaller scale initial C-band launch in limited parts of eight metro areas across the U.S. AT&T has announced its plans for a larger mid-band 5G deployment starting from Q2, once it can roll out both its C-band and newly acquired 3.45-3.55 GHz spectrum at the same time.

Looking at the weekly average 5G download and upload speeds our users experienced on the three carriers across the U.S., we saw a significant increase in the 5G Download Speed experienced on Verizon’s network following the activation of C-band spectrum for 5G on January 19th. However, we didn’t observe a similar shift in Verizon’s 5G Upload Speed, nor a statistical change in AT&T’s average 5G download and upload speeds. 

These results show that Verizon’s C-band spectrum activation was widespread across multiple markets, and aligns with Verizon’s announcement that its 5G Ultra Wideband network would be available to 100 million people in over 1,700 cities by the end of January. Also, Verizon’s C-band activation produced a large enough benefit to shift its national 5G Download Speed score by about 15 Mbps (26.7%), rising from an average of 55.7 Mbps seen in the six weeks before, to an average of 70.6 Mbps afterwards. On the other hand, AT&T’s initial C-band launch as part of its 5G+ network expansion has not yet made such a widespread impact on its 5G users’ national experience in Opensignal’s data.

While the previous chart shows that T-Mobile users have clearly faster overall 5G download speeds because of its expanded use of 2.5 GHz spectrum over the past year, a comparison of mid-band 5G speeds alone shows a much closer result. On mid-band 5G, Verizon users have a very similar experience to our T-Mobile users. Besides, our results from AT&T’s initial C-band deployment show that AT&T users also enjoy much faster 5G speeds when they connect to AT&T’s mid-band 5G network, although that was initially limited to parts of eight markets across the U.S.

When connected to mid-band 5G across the U.S., our users experienced average 5G download speeds of 225.5 Mbps on T-Mobile, 211.8 Mbps on Verizon, and 160 Mbps on AT&T. On the other hand, Verizon’s 5G Upload Speed on mid-band 5G was 20.7 Mbps, while AT&T and T-Mobile’s scores were statistically similar at 18.5 Mbps and 18.2 Mbps, respectively.

While the above results suggest that Verizon’s mid-band 5G experience is relatively similar to T-Mobile’s, this does not mean that the two are directly comparable yet. Notably, AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile have access to different amounts of mid-band spectrum, and having more spectrum capacity makes it easier for users to see higher 5G speeds. AT&T and Verizon started with access to a maximum 40 MHz and 60 MHz of C-band spectrum, respectively, that they could use for their mid-band 5G rollout. By contrast T-Mobile has gradually increased its mid-band spectrum deployed up as high as 60-80 MHz by September 2021. Plus, it was aiming to have as much as 100 MHz of mid-band spectrum on many sites by the end of 2021

This difference in mid-band 5G deployment strategy is also visible when looking at T-Mobile and Verizon’s public coverage announcements about their faster 5G services — T-Mobile’s Ultra Capacity 5G and Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband — that are comprised of both mid-band and high-band (mmWave) spectrum. In fact, Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband service reached 100 million people in January 2022, with the carrier targeting at least 175 million people covered by the end of 2022, while T-Mobile’s Ultra Capacity 5G covered more than 210 million people in January, with plans to grow it to 260 million by end of this year.

Looking at 5G Download Speed in five U.S. cities — Chicago, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Phoenix — we observed fairly consistent mid-band 5G download speeds on both T-Mobile and Verizon. Strikingly, Verizon users’ mid-band 5G download speeds were approximately four times faster than the average 5G download speeds we were used to seeing in Opensignal’s previous reports, as its average scores generally ranged around 50 Mbps when users mostly connected to low-band 5G. 

Across the five cities, our users on T-Mobile saw average download speeds between 233.9 Mbps and 273.7 Mbps when connected to mid-band 5G, while Verizon’s scores were in the 207.8-231.1 Mbps range. But in Indianapolis and Los Angeles T-Mobile and Verizon’s mid-band 5G download speeds were statistically similar.


C-band will continue to change the 5G experience in the U.S.

Opensignal data shows that 5G download speeds are already much faster — three to four times — when connected to mid-band 5G on AT&T and Verizon compared to the average 5G download speeds our users experienced on the two carriers before they activated their C-band networks. Although AT&T and Verizon are still in the early stages of their mid-band 5G rollouts, these results are indicative of the improvement that users can look forward to in the coming years as the two carriers expand their mid-band 5G deployments.

While it may be some time before the two carriers can challenge T-Mobile for the 5G Download Speed award — as T-Mobile has had a nearly 22-month head start with its 2.5 GHz spectrum — Opensignal data shows that Verizon and soon AT&T now have the required mid-band spectrum to start the chase.