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In the US, 4G continues to outshine 5G

As 2020 stumbles toward its highly anticipated conclusion, the second annual "year of 5G" is rapidly drawing to a close. And 4G continues to outshine the technology by almost every metric.

The latest example of 4G playing the role of workhorse to the showhorse of 5G comes from Verizon, which expanded its fixed wireless efforts across the country using both technologies – albeit with widely varying results. According to detailed maps from PCMag, Verizon's 5G fixed wireless Internet offerings are severely limited – even when compared with its mobile 5G services. Meantime, the company's 4G-based fixed wireless service, first announced just a few months ago, now covers wide swaths of the rural US.

Coverage vs. capacity

Verizon announced last week it expanded its LTE Home Internet to locations in 48 states, though the company declined to provide any specifics around the buildout, including how many customers are now covered by the service. Enter PCMag, which mapped out the zip codes where the offering is now available.

"Verizon's 4G system, which uses low- to midband frequencies, covers a larger area than its 5G system, which uses super-high-band frequencies that can't even cover a single neighborhood at a time," PCMag writes.

Indeed, the publication applied a similar mapping effort against Verizon's 5G-powered fixed wireless Internet service, discovering the offering wasn't even available where expected. "Not only did coverage not stretch beyond Verizon's very limited mobile 5G map, addresses that appeared to be right on 5G corridors kept getting rejected," the publication wrote of Verizon's network in Chicago.

Verizon, for its part, argued that it's carefully tailoring the two offerings to meet the needs of its customers.

"With our new equipment, customers will have an even better 5G Home experience," a Verizon spokesperson told PCMag. "Keep in mind, we're only on day 3 with the new equipment and our new 5G Home markets. To ensure our customers have the best experience, the website [where customers can check coverage] is currently being a bit conservative with who is getting qualified. That said, we're expecting performance improvements and the addition of new small cells will continue to improve both coverage area and speeds."

Verizon initially launched 5G Home in a handful of markets in 2018 – which some consider the first "year of 5G" – but halted the buildout in order to wait for Qualcomm's range-boosting QTM527 antenna, now available.

Indeed, some Verizon officials attempted to explain that its extensive 4G fixed wireless service is leveraging its work in 5G. "We've also learned from fixed wireless access in the 5G space as well," Verizon's VP of 5G Commercialization Brian Danfield told FierceWireless in discussing the operator's 4G expansion.

And it's true that there are distinct differences between fixed wireless in 5G as compared with 4G. For example, Verizon's 5G Home provides typical speeds around 300 Mbit/s for $70 per month for non-Verizon customers, while its LTE Home Internet offering supports speeds between 25-50 Mbit/s for $60 per month for non-Verizon customers.

2021: The year of 5G?

But the widespread availability of Verizon's 4G service only serves to highlight its paltry 5G coverage area.

"Although 5G deployments and adoption have been the focus for wireless operators over the last 12 months, 4G networks still dominate real-world subscriber experience in 2020," wrote network-monitoring firm Tutela in a report last month on the US mobile market. "As of the time of writing, there's still no 5G-compatible iPhone, and true standalone 5G networks are still in their infancy."

Of course, the reason 5G in the US remains uninspiring is largely due to the physics of signal propagation. Verizon's 5G remains confined to its highband, millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum holdings, which support blazing-fast speeds but tiny coverage areas. AT&T, meanwhile, has taken 5G nationwide on a sliver of its lowband spectrum holdings, which support vast coverage areas. However, as noted by PCMag, AT&T's 5G service is typically slower than its 4G service as a result.

Like Verizon, AT&T does have extensive mmWave spectrum holdings, but it hasn't made much noise around its 5G operations in those bands. Indeed, the company just this week said it launched 5G in "parts" of downtown Milwaukee – its first new mmWave 5G market announced in 2020.

T-Mobile, for its part, has embarked on a five-year, $60 billion project to build 5G across its low-, mid- and highband spectrum holdings. The operator has been touting a widening number of large coverage areas where its 5G speeds routinely exceed the 300Mbit/s threshold.

Whether T-Mobile manages to turn its 5G position into a winning hand remains to be seen.

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

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