T-Mobile Quietly Moves Its 5G Goalposts

Mike Dano
12/5/2019

T-Mobile is informing reviewers and customers that its new lowband 5G network will be on average 20% faster than its 4G LTE network. That's noteworthy considering the operator promised just this summer that "5G speed will be up to 10x faster, compared to LTE."

None of this is all that surprising, however, mainly because not all 5G is the same. Some iterations of 5G offer blazing fast speeds but are only available across a few city blocks, while other types cover vast stretches of the US but aren't much faster than 4G.

Ultimately, regular consumers will be left to figure all this out for themselves.

The reviews are in
T-Mobile is scheduled to begin selling its first two lowband 5G phones tomorrow, and the operator provided a number of publications with early access to the offering.

"I'm thinking of this form of 5G as maybe 4.9G," wrote PCMag, adding that "4.9G is better than what you're getting now."

PCMag reported anecdotal tests of T-Mobile's lowband 5G network in Maui, Hawaii, producing download speeds up to 312Mbit/s. VentureBeat similarly reported peaks of 227Mbit/s. (Reporters for both publications were in Maui attending a Qualcomm Snapdragon press event -- meanwhile, this reporter has been dealing with multiple snowstorms in Denver and is not in any way jealous. Not at all. Not. At. All.)

Meantime, Cnet reported lowband 5G speeds from T-Mobile in New York City ranging from 20Mbit/s to 50Mbit/s, peaking at 100Mbit/s.

A number of outlets reported that T-Mobile has said it expects its lowband 5G to be on average 20% faster than its 4G LTE service. Indeed, T-Mobile's primary 5G webpage today notes only that 5G offers "faster speeds" than 4G, among other advancements. That's a distinct change from this summer, when that same T-Mobile webpage promised that 5G will be up to 10x faster than 4G, according to an Internet Archive snapshot of the page from August.

This isn't necessarily a surprise considering T-Mobile launched 5G on its highband spectrum in July across parts of six cities, where users recorded speeds of roughly 500Mbit/s. T-Mobile now is changing gears for its lowband 5G launch, which will cover around 200 million Americans. Further, T-Mobile in August was also touting its plans to merge with Sprint, which owns vast stretches of midband spectrum that can support faster 5G speeds. That merger has been stalled by a lawsuit.

A question of spectrum
At the heart of the issue is exactly what kind of spectrum 5G providers are using. Highband spectrum like the kind Verizon is using for 5G can support super-fast 5G connections, but signals in such spectrum can only travel a few thousand feet. Meantime, lowband spectrum like the 600MHz that T-Mobile is using for its 5G launch tomorrow can push signals across miles but can't carry as much data. And, adding more complexity to the issue, if an operator adds more spectrum to its offering, it can provide faster speeds.

Indeed, PCMag reported that T-Mobile owns around 31MHz of lowband spectrum nationwide, and plans to devote 10MHz of that to 5G downloads, 10MHz to 5G uploads, 5MHz to 4G downloads, and 5MHz to 4G uploads. But the publication noted that, in Maui, T-Mobile owns 40MHz of lowband spectrum and therefore can devote 15MHz to 5G downloads and uploads -- a situation that likely explains reviewers' speedy 5G connections from T-Mobile in Maui. "The fact that it's 77 degrees today in Maui can't hurt either," wrote this reporter while sitting in front of a space heater, watching the snow fall.

Finally, it's worth pointing out that 5G speeds will undoubtedly improve as time goes on. For example, when operators first introduced 4G LTE roughly a decade ago, users' download speeds often maxed out around 10Mbit/s on mostly unused and uncrowded networks. Today, those same networks routinely provide speeds up to 150Mbit/s across millions of users.

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

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