Lowband 5G Offers the Massive Coverage the US Needs

What's the point of gigabit 5G speeds if you can't get connected anywhere?

Dan Jones, Mobile Editor

November 28, 2019

4 Min Read
Lowband 5G Offers the Massive Coverage the US Needs

With Thanksgiving is upon us in the US, 5G networks are set to transform from exclusive high-speed connections that may only service a block or two in the expensive part of town into nationwide offerings, using the new radio specification.

Early December will see the commercial debut of 5G services that will cover millions of potential users in the US.

AT&T says its 850MHz lowband 5G service will cover tens of millions of would-be customers in the US this year. T-Mobile, meanwhile, is planning to launch its 600MHz 5G offering on December 6 that will cover 200 million Americans off the bat.

Sprint already offers 5G to 11 million potential customers in 9 cities in the US with its midband 2.5GHz. The company, currently in the process of a drawn-out merger with T-Mobile, hasn't announced any further 5G plans.

These networks offer significantly better coverage than the millimeter wave (mmWave) services that characterized the first wave of 5G offerings in the US. Of course, mmWave offers impressive gigabit-plus download speeds, but a coverage range of just 1000 feet from the 5G base station. Most importantly, the mmWave technology doesn't work indoors: Its signal gets blocked by concrete, low-energy glass, and foliage.

Millimeter wave 5G is a peculiarly American phenomenon at the moment, with AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon having launched the super high-speed service with terrible range in a smattering of US cities through 2019.

Russian operators started some 28GHz trials in late summer of 2019, and chip designer Qualcomm expects Japan and South Korea will launch mmWave networks in 2020. In terms of actual commercial 5G services available now, however, mmWave is -- like the World Series -- very much an American obsession.

Verizon's newly released 5G coverage maps reveal how mmWave leads to paltry block-by-block coverage in Manhattan and small areas of downtown Brooklyn. What the maps don't illustrate is that users in the Northeast could be forced outdoors into sleet -- and soon snow -- in order to get a 5G connection. Most will likely use the existing LTE-Advanced connections on their phones to stay indoors and keep warm, rather than freeze just for a faster connection.

At least the cold should stop 5G mmWave devices from overheating. This past summer, reporters running tests of early mmWave Samsung S10 5G phones found the devices were prone to overheating and losing the 5G connection completely.

Lowband coming through
Devices using a lowband 5G New Radio (5G NR) connection will offer significantly lower download speeds than mmWave. But what's the point of a gigabit-speed connection if you can never connect to the signal?

T-Mobile expects its download speeds to start at 100 Mbit/s, and gradually rise to hundreds of megabits per second, if and when the Sprint merger is completed.

AT&T expects data speeds on its initial 850MHz lowband 5G network will be "comparable to LTE-Advanced speeds at the time of launch." This means speeds will average around 28.8 Mbit/s initially.

AT&T plans to launch the service in Boston, Las Vegas, Milwaukee, New York City and San Francisco, as well as Birmingham, Bridgeport, Buffalo, Louisville and San Jose.

AT&T will follow up with a nationwide 5G launch by mid-year 2020. The carrier may use 700MHz, but hasn't confirmed this yet.

Verizon, meanwhile, has started to test dynamic spectrum sharing (DDS) with Ericsson and Qualcomm. "Running 5G technology on low or midband spectrum historically reserved for 4G will complement Verizon's primary strategy of offering a keenly differentiated 5G Ultra Wideband service on mmWave spectrum," the carrier says in a statement, adding that using DSS will enable customers to move outside Verizon's limited 5G mmWave coverage area, and share lowband 4G spectrum to remain connected to 5G.

You still probably shouldn't buy a 5G phone yet. For starters, chips that support low, mid and highband 5G (for example, the Qualcomm X55) still aren't available. So, you probably won't be able to get a phone that supports low and high band 5G until the middle of next year.

AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon say they will also launch standalone 5G next year. This should not affect the non-standalone (NSA) services already up and coming soon from the major carriers. NSA services, which use 4G LTE as the control plane for 5G, should continue in service for years to come. Standalone phones, however, won't work with NSA networks, and vice versa.

Despite this, 2020 appears to be the first year when 5G services could become mainstream in the US. One reason for this is that 5G phones will start to fall in price from their $1,000+ peaks this year, with more smartphone vendors joining the 5G fray in 2020. Apple's arrival on the 5G scene next year will likely generate consumer interest, too.

More widespread 5G networks will be the catalyst for the growth of the network standard. In a country as large as the United States, lowband 5G is really the only way to get the specification running coast-to-coast.

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— Dan Jones, Mobile Editor, Light Reading

About the Author(s)

Dan Jones

Mobile Editor

Dan is to hats what Will.I.Am is to ridiculous eyewear. Fedora, trilby, tam-o-shanter -- all have graced the Jones pate during his career as the go-to purveyor of mobile essentials.

But hey, Dan is so much more than 4G maps and state-of-the-art headgear. Before joining the Light Reading team in 2002 he was an award-winning cult hit on Broadway (with four 'Toni' awards, two 'Emma' gongs and a 'Brian' to his name) with his one-man show, "Dan Sings the Show Tunes."

His perfectly crafted blogs, falling under the "Jonestown" banner, have been compared to the works of Chekhov. But only by Dan.

He lives in Brooklyn with cats.

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