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February 7, 2023
A new report from Signals Research Group (SRG) helps to highlight the different 5G strategies employed by AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile. The report focuses on the spectrum deployed by each carrier around State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, which will host Super Bowl LVII on Sunday.
However, the report stands as just one small data point in a much wider technological and marketing battle among the biggest wireless network operators in the US. Broadly, each argues that it offers the nation's "best" 5G network, though each cites different measurements and methodologies to back up that assertion.
Moreover, 5G is just one of many networking technologies deployed by the officials at State Farm Stadium. According to a lengthy article from Sports Business Journal, stadium officials started working with NFL vendor Cisco in 2021 to upgrade the venue's communications, including its Wi-Fi network, its Crown Castle-supplied distributed antenna systems (DAS) for cellular connections, and its core operations and security. Specifically, the stadium upgraded to Cisco's Wi-Fi 6 system while doubling the number of on-site switches and increasing the number of Wi-Fi access points from 1,000 to 1,600.
"If everything goes seamlessly, nobody talks about it. And that's a really good thing," Ken Martin, general manager and director of global sales in Cisco's Sports and Entertainment Solutions Group, told the publication.
To be clear, the Super Bowl – and the venue that hosts the event – has come to stand as a way for big mobile network operators to discuss their latest wireless networking advancements and services , particularly in the 5G era.
From CBRS to mmWave
The analysts at SRG are making sure to talk about the networking situation at State Farm Stadium. They recently scanned the exterior of the venue to determine what kinds of spectrum bands each 5G provider has deployed ahead of the big game. Importantly, the analysts pointed out that their findings do not account for additional signals that might be broadcast inside the venue, or any temporary portable transmission equipment that might be deployed by each carrier on game day.
Nonetheless, SRG's findings are instructive because they highlight what are likely the permanent 5G operations around the stadium, including in its vast parking lot. The firm reported that AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon each offered both 4G LTE and 5G signals, and that roughly 75% of the operators' collective capacity was allotted to 5G. However, each operator leveraged their own unique spectrum holdings.
For example, the firm found that Verizon deployed around 20MHz of 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum for its 4G LTE network. Verizon has so far been the only big US network operator to make use of the CBRS spectrum band. Verizon also operated by far the most extensive millimeter wave (mmWave) network in and around the venue, according to SRG's findings. That's also not a surprise given Verizon's loud and longtime support for 5G in mmWave spectrum.
As for T-Mobile, the SRG analysts recorded a total of 140MHz of 2.5GHz spectrum deployed at State Farm Stadium. T-Mobile has based much of its 5G story around the deployment of the midband 2.5GHz spectrum it acquired from Sprint in 2020. T-Mobile also boasted of its 5G network in and around Glendale in a recent press release.
Finally, the SRG analysts reported that AT&T's 5G network stretched across spectrum bands including mmWave, C-band and 3.45 GHz. Indeed, AT&T officials told FierceWireless that the operator counts around 200 mmWave nodes in and around the stadium, and that the operator might also deploy portable equipment such as cells on light trucks (COLTs) in case they're needed. However, the AT&T executives said the operator isn't yet offering its 3.45GHz connections to customers in Glendale. That spectrum was recently freed in an FCC auction.
But which operator came out ahead in SRG's measurements? The firm argued that, based on their recent testing outside the venue, Verizon offered the most total wireless network capacity. Based on the amount of spectrum they recorded on Verizon's network, the operator's total network capacity reached 45.7 Gbit/s. That's ahead of AT&T's 28.3 Gbit/s and T-Mobile's 35.9 Gbit/s.
Everyone's a winner
Perhaps not surprisingly, each operator argues that it provides the best 5G experience. For example, T-Mobile recently reported its network received top marks from network-monitoring companies umlaut and Opensignal. Meanwhile, Verizon announced that J.D. Power named it "the most awarded brand" for wireless network quality. And network-testing company RootMetrics recently announced that AT&T "won or shared the most United States RootScore Awards of any carrier for the third consecutive time."
So how can everyone be a winner? At issue is the fact that there are a wide variety of companies that monitor wireless network performance, and each uses its own distinct methodology. Some conduct real-world drive tests, some collect performance data through software installed on customers' phones, and some conduct surveys of customers' experiences. Further, many network-testing firms mix and match their findings through various ranking systems, partly because doing so can highlight multiple winners in categories ranging from network reliability to network speed to brand perception.
The result is that each operator can cite findings showing that it's the "best" – although the definition of that word can vary wildly depending on which carrier is making the claim.
For its part, MVNO Mint Mobile recently released an advertisement boasting that it will not run a commercial during the Super Bowl. Instead of focusing on its network, the company said it would offer one month of free service.
Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading
Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.
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