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Test & Measurement

Verizon covers 0.5% of Americans with mmWave 5G – analysts

A new report from the financial analysts at New Street Research uses some back-of-the-envelope calculations to roughly estimate the number of people that Verizon covers with its super-fast 5G network working in millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum: Around 1.8 million people.

Given that there are around 328 million people in the US, that equates to around 0.5% of the population.

Importantly, that figure dovetails almost exactly with recent figures from Speedtest provider Ookla. In its third quarter report on US mobile networks, the network-monitoring company reported that the average Verizon customer spends 0.6% of their time connected to 5G.

Details and caveats

Of course, as with any discussion of 5G, the devil is in the details.

For example, Verizon launched its "5G Nationwide" service in conjunction with the introduction of the new 5G-capable iPhone this month, promising to deliver a 5G icon to fully 200 million people.

However, that service uses a technology called Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) to push 5G signals into the lowband 850MHz spectrum that Verizon currently uses for 4G. As a result, Verizon's "5G Nationwide" service isn't any faster than its 4G service.

Verizon's 5G Nationwide service is decidedly different from its "ultra wideband" 5G service working in its mmWave spectrum, which Verizon has branded as UWB. Thanks to its acquisitions of XO Communications, Straight Path and NextLink, Verizon commands vast swaths of mmWave spectrum around the country. While such spectrum can support blazing-fast speeds, signals in the band can only travel a few thousand feet under the best of conditions. As a result, Verizon has been working to deploy its 5G mmWave network in dozens of cities using thousands of small cells (mini cell towers on top of light poles, buildings and other objects).

Although Verizon kicked off its mmWave buildout in 2018, the company is on track to cover just 2 million people with the service by the end of 2020, according to the New Street analysts.

Nagging questions

Verizon executives have firmly avoided discussing the number of people the company covers with its mmWave 5G service, despite the fact that Verizon's mmWave 5G played a starring role in the unveiling of Apple's new iPhone 12.

"I think that people don't have a sense as to kind of a footprint or a number that you can put around that," said David Barden, an analyst with Bank of America Merrill Lynch, during Verizon's recent quarterly conference call, according to a Seeking Alpha transcription of the event. "Can you quantify and elaborate a little bit about what the goals are for that mobile ultra wideband network?"

In response, Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg said the operator's mmWave 5G network can support speeds of up to 5Gbit/s and that it covers parts of almost 60 cities – but he did not answer Barden's question. He did note, though, that Verizon has deployed more basestations during the third quarter of this year than it did during all of 2019.

"We couldn't get Verizon to tell us the number of POPs covered by ultra wideband," wrote the New Street analysts in a report to investors, using the "points of presence" acronym common for discussing the number of people covered by a mobile technology. "We had a hard time getting any of the host of companies that do network testing to tell us either."

And that's not necessarily a surprise, they argued. "Millimeter wave doesn't cover 'areas' the way spectrum below 6GHz does," they wrote. "It doesn't propagate a uniform distance from a cell site. It doesn't submit to analysis based on averages very well. You might be a couple of hundred feet from an access point with no signal because of how you are holding your phone, or you could be thousands of feet away and still receive a signal. Foliage, traffic, being indoors, the materials used to construct the cityscape around you – all potential problems for millimeter wave."

Filling the information gap

Nonetheless, in order to obtain an estimate for Verizon's mmWave coverage footprint, the analysts said they selected six of Verizon's mmWave cities and compared the operator's coverage maps with population metrics, and then extrapolated the findings to Verizon's full 55-city mmWave coverage footprint.

"We hesitate to call what we did 'measurement' – it is hardly scientific," they wrote, noting they found Verizon covers 1.8 million people now and should cover 2 million people by the end of the year when it expands to 60 citites.

However, such findings rise in value if companies like Verizon remain silent.

"It is difficult to predict how new capabilities will capture the imagination of consumers, particularly following events like Apple's launch event last week; however, we suspect coverage will matter more for the next few years at least," the New Street analysts concluded.

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

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