All the big three US MNOs can claim a 5G lead by some selected metric and meaningful comparisons are elusive. Verizon stole an early lead for headline speed by virtue of its millimeter wave capacity but only in the limited areas where users could get a signal, and has generally lagged behind T-Mobile USA and AT&T by most other metrics. The operator was therefore eager to trumpet a sustained increase in data traffic of 249% for its flagship 5G Ultra-Wideband network, between January 2021 and May 2022.
This figure is rather meaningless on its own but does signify the traction being gained for 5G in the USA and Verizon’s increasing ability to capture some of the gains. Initially Verizon focused on mmWave in a quest for leadership in performance and capacity, but this was at the expense of availability, which meant that its aggregate 5G performance tended to lag at least well behind T-Mobile. That deficit has been closed to some extent by Verizon’s expansion in the midband sweet spot through acquisition of C-band spectrum, which was turned on early in 2022.
At that same time, Verizon sought to streamline its 5G portfolio by defining two clear underlying network offerings, 5G Ultra-Wideband and 5G Nationwide. The former was so called because it combines the operator’s existing mmWave spectrum with the more recently acquired C-band spectrum to deliver a better combination of performance and availability. 5G Nationwide was then the vanilla service barely justifying the 5G tag, using low band spectrum to provide high coverage but performance Verizon has admitted is only comparable to its LTE. AT&T had run into similar criticism for its low band 5G service, which again struggled even to match LTE performance in some cases.
Verizon has turned to its 5G Ultra-Wideband for its specific service categories, including its two fixed wireless access (FWA) offerings, 5G Home Internet and 5G Business Internet. It also underpins its higher speed mobility offerings for consumers, as well as its Mobile Edge Compute (MEC) enterprise services, to which it is looking increasingly for revenue growth.
Since the C-band deployment and coincident launch of 5G Ultra-Wideband, Verizon has gained ground for download speeds, according to RootMetrics, the mobile analytics arm of Seattle-based internet performance measurement firm Ookla. The main impact of C-band has been to extend the coverage area of higher speeds, and this has had the effect of boosting median downloads speeds, which now exceed 100Mbps in nine of its markets, compared with none last year, according to RootMetrics.
The firm is approaching halfway through testing performance of all the big three operators in 125 US cities, having released an interim report on 60 of them. One nuance is that while T-Mobile retains a significant lead in 5G speed and availability across most cities, Verizon and AT&T both perform better for 5G data reliability. This means that users of Verizon and AT&T are more likely to have sustained access to a 5G signal if they get one in the first place. This possibly reflects the fact that Verizon at any rate has plenty of capacity available for 5G where it is available, so users are any likely to run into contention.
RootMetrics cited Salt Lake City as an example of a market where C-Band deployments has increased 5G availability and performance for Verizon. Its median 5G download speed there has increased threefold in less than a year, from 54Mbps in the second half of 2021 to 174Mbps now, while 5G availability rose from about 51% to 69%.
London-based mobile analytics company Opensignal has also been tracking the performance of the US cellcos and confirms Verizon’s improvement, although its data does not quite concord with RootMetrics, generally indicating lower speeds.
By its measure, Verizon is still in third place for average download data rate at 30.2Mbps but closing in on AT&T on 35.3Mbps. However, Opensignal registers T-Mobile as the biggest improver, first overtaking and then roaring ahead of AT&T to reach an average of 54.1Mbps. Opensignal attributes this to T-Mobile’s deployment of the midband, but in this case at 2.5 GHz rather than the higher C-band frequencies. This makes sense in so far that it was AT&T, and especially Verizon, that hogged the C-band, while T-Mobile already held the most 2.5 GHz assets that it has now exploited, via its merger with Sprint.
For upload, all three carriers registered improvements according to Opensignal, with T-Mobile leading there too at 10.5Mbps, followed by Verizon on 8.2Mbps and AT&T on 6.7Mbps.
All these analysts refer to speeds when they really mean data transmission capacities measures in bit-rates. An analogy can be made with road transport where a six-lane highway might have a higher capacity in terms of vehicles completing a given journey than a two-lane road, even if the average speed was lower. Similarly, a mobile service with a higher latency might still register a superior data rate if there were more spectral bandwidth.