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5G

Amid 5G push, Verizon supercharges 4G network

Verizon has been relentlessly advertising the speeds and capabilities of its 5G network for several years now. It's "5G built right," according to Verizon.

But new research indicates the operator is in the process of upgrading its 4G network with CBRS spectrum to support dramatically faster speeds than those available on its 5G Nationwide network.

As Light Reading reported in 2019, Verizon has been adding support for the 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum band to its network for years. And last year Verizon spent $1.9 billion to purchase CBRS spectrum licenses across the country in an FCC auction.

Now, new testing shows just how impactful Verizon's strategy has been. According to a new report released Thursday by network-testing firm RootMetrics, Verizon's CBRS spectrum helped to double the speeds available on its 4G LTE network in Philadelphia. The firm said Verizon's median download speeds using CBRS spectrum reached 135.1 Mbit/s, or more than double the 64.2 Mbit/s the firm found in Verizon connections that didn't use CBRS spectrum.

Further, RootMetrics reported that Verizon's maximum download speeds with CBRS spectrum reached 692.1 Mbit/s, far more than the 404.9 Mbit/s without CBRS.

The firm attributed the increases to the 50MHz of spectrum that Verizon added to its network in the city, bringing its total amount of spectrum in Philadelphia to 95MHz.

Limited CBRS coverage

However, RootMetrics noted that Verizon's CBRS coverage in Philadelphia was not extensive.

"Our tests showed that Verizon began using CBRS in Philadelphia in the first half of 2020, albeit on a very small scale, with the carrier using CBRS spectrum during just 0.03% of its download tests," the firm wrote in its report. "In the second half of 2020, on the other hand, CBRS contributed to over 3% of Verizon's download tests. While 3% may appear insignificant at an absolute level, the carrier's jump in CBRS usage from 0.03% to 3.24% marked a massive increase."

Verizon's CBRS coverage area expanded in Philadelphia during 2020.  Click here for a larger version of this image. (Source: RootMetrics)
Verizon's CBRS coverage area expanded in Philadelphia during 2020.
Click here for a larger version of this image.
(Source: RootMetrics)

Philadelphia isn't the only city where Verizon is deploying CBRS spectrum. RootMetrics tested 125 cities in the second half of 2020. Among those cities, the firm found Verizon using CBRS spectrum in 70 metro areas. That's up from the 41 cities where the firm found CBRS in action in the first half of 2020.

RootMetrics' findings dovetail with recent testing by PCMag. The publication reported on two Verizon cell sites in New York that supported CBRS connections up to a half mile away. Further, Verizon's 4G download speeds using its CBRS spectrum topped out at 815 Mbit/s – significantly faster than the 358 Mbit/s available on Verizon's lowband, nationwide 5G network. (However, Verizon's highband, millimeter wave network in New York supported speeds up to 3.4 Gbit/s.)

Importantly, PCMag reported that Verizon's Nokia equipment in New York doesn't support 5G in Verizon's 40MHz of CBRS spectrum, nor do the phones available from the operator. "So Verizon gets a bunch of technical and performance advantages, at least for now, by keeping CBRS 4G," the publication reported.

Verizon has been working to add two "flavors" of 5G to its network. The millimeter wave version – dubbed 5G Ultra Wideband – is only available in parts of some major cities, but can support blazing-fast speeds. The lowband version – dubbed 5G Nationwide – is available across the country but isn't much faster than 4G.

And now, Verizon is leveraging its new CBRS spectrum to increase the speeds it can provide to its customers. However, due to the technical limitations of Verizon's network and phones, those CBRS speed boosts are only available through a 4G connection.

Thus, 5G is nothing if not a work in progress.

Indeed, Verizon SVP Adam Koeppe told Light Reading this week that the operator has deployed CBRS spectrum across "thousands" of small cells around the country. He said the operator has been conducting transmissions in the unlicensed, GAA portion of the band to augment the capacity of its 4G network. He said Verizon will soon add its licensed, PAL spectrum to that effort.

Further, Koeppe confirmed that Verizon will be able to activate 5G signals on that equipment later this year via a software upgrade.

The tests of Verizon's CBRS network also provide more context for Verizon's C-band spectrum purchases. The operator agreed to spend more than $50 billion on roughly 160MHz of C-band spectrum nationwide. The C-band sits between 3.7GHz and 3.98GHz – just up from the CBRS band at 3.5GHz. Meaning, the speeds that Verizon is squeezing from 40MHz-50MHz of CBRS spectrum ought to pale in comparison to the speeds it should derive from 160MHz of C-band spectrum.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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