One Year After the First 5G iPhone, T-Mobile Continues to Lead In the 5G Speed Race

T-Mobile Nationwide 5G Credit: T-Mobile
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It’s fair to say that we’re at the point where 5G network technology in the U.S. has reached the first stages of its maturity, with carriers more focused now on tweaking their networks and coverage than on the big build-outs that we’ve seen over the past few years.

As things have mostly stabilize, it appears that T-Mobile is continuing its solid lead over its competitors in overall 5G network performance throughout the U.S. In fact, it’s not only maintained its lead over rivals Verizon and AT&T, but it’s actually pulled out even farther ahead in some areas.

What makes this particularly interesting is that T-Mobile doesn’t offer the fastest possible 5G speeds. Instead, it’s the slow-and-steady approach to rolling out sub-6GHz 5G technology as widely as possible that’s tilting the numbers strongly in its favour.

After all, T-Mobile was the first carrier to offer 5G coverage in all 50 states, and it still boasts the largest 5G network, covering 1.6 million square miles and 280 million people. In other words, T-Mobile customers have a much better chance of being on 5G at all compared to those on other carriers.

By contrast, Verizon invested most of its early 5G efforts into putting up insanely fast — but also extremely short range — mmWave cells in major urban areas. This allowed it to boast ridiculously fast 5G speeds — arguably more than any iPhone users would ever need.

In fact, since that was the only flavour of 5G that Verizon offered at the time, its numbers skewed way upward compared to the other carriers that were rolling out more expansive networks. In early 2020, an independent report by Opensignal showed Verizon offering speeds that were almost twice as fast as South Korea’s 5G carriers, and eight times faster than AT&T and T-Mobile.

However, those numbers needed to come with a pretty big asterisk beside them — they were only available to around 1% of its entire customer base. Verizon’s customers who weren’t fortunate enough to live in one of the few urban cores where mmWave was available were stuck on 4G/LTE technologies until last fall, when Verizon finally rolled out its nationwide 5G network.

It was several months behind T-Mobile in doing this, however, and it also kind of “cheated” in its 5G build-out, creating a nationwide network that built upon leftover pieces of 4G/LTE channels. A series of independent tests by PC Magazine ultimately showed that most Verizon iPhone users were better switching off 5G entirely, as 4G/LTE was at least the same speed, if not faster, and also far easier on your iPhone’s battery.

Meanwhile, not only was T-Mobile already building out a true “standalone” 5G network across the country, but it also gained access to “mid-band” channels from its merger with Sprint, which it used to begin rolling out its “Ultra Capacity” 2.5GHz 5G coverage. As of this past July, that faster 5G network reportedly covers 165 million people.

As Opensignal’s tests revealed back in January, the net effect of this is that 49 percent of T-Mobile customers can get a connection to a faster and higher-capacity 5G network, as compared to only 5 percent regularly getting onto Verizon’s extremely short range Ultra Wideband mmWave network.

The Numbers

As with Wi-Fi networks, higher frequencies mean faster speeds but shorter ranges. 5GHz Wi-Fi is faster than 2.4GHz Wi-Fi, but doesn’t travel as far. For the same reasons, 2.5GHz 5G is faster than 600MHz (0.6GHz) 5G, but has shorter range.

However, 5G has another set of frequency bands in play, the mmWave bands, which run up in the 25-40GHz range. Verizon specifically uses the 28GHz and 39GHz bands for its Ultra Wideband 5G service, and these higher frequencies can offer staggeringly high 5G speeds — up to 4Gbps in some cases — but they also have the range of about a city block. This means that you need to drop in a lot more transceivers to provide the necessary coverage — several thousand in a typical city, in fact.

Meanwhile, the “mid-band” 5G spectrum, which runs in the 2.5GHz–3.5GHz range, has become the “sweet spot” for 5G service, at least in built-up areas, since it provides the best balance between range and performance.

T-Mobile’s original nationwide network focused on 600MHz 5G to maximize range, but this offered performance only slightly better than 4G/LTE. However, as it has begun deploying its Ultra Capacity 5G network in more cities, users are starting to really see what 5G can do, and it’s leaving its rivals in the dust.

According to Opensignal’s latest quarterly 5G User Experience Report, T-Mobile continues to lead in overall upload and download speeds as well as availability and reach, while Verizon still edged it out for providing a better 5G experience for video streaming, gaming, and voice apps.

When it came to availability, the report noted that T-Mobile users were more than twice as likely to be connected to 5G than AT&T customers, and 3.5 times more often compared to those on Verizon. Specifically, T-Mobile customers spent 34.7 percent of the time with 5G service overall, while those on AT&T were on 5G 16.4% of the time, and Verizon users only found themselves on a 5G network a mere 9.7% of the time.

Opensignal notes that these numbers declined overall compared to the previous report, but chalked that up to a seasonal effect as mobile users spend more time outdoors in more remote areas during the warmer months, where 5G coverage is less likely to be available.

When it came to reach, which represents the proportion of locations users visited where 5G was available, rather than simply the time users spent on 5G networks, T-Mobile still came out with a healthy lead, scoring 7.2 out of 10, versus AT&T’s 4.9 and Verizon’s 3.4.

When it came to upload and download speeds, T-Mobile not only handily trounced its rivals, but also saw a marked increase in average 5G download speeds, breaking the 100Mbps barrier for the first time.

T-Mobile’s download performance has been growing in leaps and bounds over the past four quarters, from 58.1Mbps in January to 71.3Mbps in April and 87.5Mbps as of July.

Meanwhile, Verizon clocked in at 56Mbps, which was only a 3.7Mbps increase from July, while AT&T actually dropped 0.8Mbps, placing third at 51.5Mbps overall.

The difference in upload speeds was far less dramatic, although T-Mobile still came out on top, with 16.1Mbps versus Verizon’s 14.4Mbps and AT&T’s 9.7Mbps.

When it came to mobile gaming, video streaming, and voice apps, Verizon remained on top, although T-Mobile has been slowly catching up here as well. Opensignal notes that T-Mobile saw enough of an increase in video streaming performance this past quarter to join Verizon in the “Good” category, while AT&T actually dropped by 17.5%.

When it came to lag-free gaming and the quality of voice calls, however, both Verizon and AT&T remained in first and second place, respectively, with T-Mobile lagging slightly behind. These metrics measure things like network latency, packet loss, and jitter on gameplay, as well as the reliability and quality of voice calls on apps like Skype, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger over a 5G network connection.

The Future of 5G

While T-Mobile is making gains in this area, the game isn’t entirely over, since both Verizon and AT&T have yet to roll out the new mid-band spectrum that they’ve paid billions to license. T-Mobile pulled into the lead thanks to inheriting much of its 2.5GHz spectrum from Sprint, while the other carriers have had to go out and buy new spectrum in the 3.5-4GHz range, which they have yet to deploy.

Still, T-Mobile will likely remain ahead of the game for a while. For its part, AT&T has announced that it expects to cover up to 75 million people with this new spectrum by the end of 2022, while Verizon’s initial coverage next year should start with around 100 million people.

Meanwhile, T-Mobile already has 165 million covered with its Ultra Capacity 2.5GHz spectrum today, and it’s not slowing down on its expansion plans — it expects to cover 300 million people by the end of 2023.

For much more detail, including a breakdown of how well each carrier did in each state, take a look at the full October 2021 5G Experience Report from Opensignal.

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