Although it was Verizon’s network that got all of the attention at this month’s iPhone 12 launch, bolstered by the appearance of Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg on stage to effectively introduce the new 5G technology on this year’s iPhones, that doesn’t mean that its competitors aren’t also stepping up to the plate to improve 5G coverage and service for Apple’s latest iPhones.
T-Mobile was already the carrier that beat its rivals to the punch by being the first to offer 5G service in all 50 states, it managed to pull this off by focusing on deploying 5G on the slower and farther-reaching 600MHz frequencies, providing 5G performance that’s really ended up being at the opposite end of the spectrum from Verizon’s “Ultra Wideband” mmWave service, which promises 1Gbps+ performance — as long as you’re fortunate enough to be within the core of a major city and within about a block of an mmWave transceiver.
It’s part of the physics of radio waves that with higher frequencies you get more bandwidth but poorer range. You can see that in your home Wi-Fi networks, where the 5GHz signals provide much better performance than the more standard 2.4GHz Wi-Fi, but at the expense of not travelling as far or penetrating solid objects like walls as effectively.
This was key to T-Mobile’s strategy of getting a nationwide 5G network launched last year; by focusing on the 600MHz band, it was able to create a much wider network with far fewer towers than it would have otherwise needed, but it was also the slowest 5G that you’ll find on a U.S. carrier, with just enough of a performance increase over 4G LTE to be noticeable, but only barely so.
It quickly became apparent, however, that this was just phase one of T-Mobile’s plan, and it’s clearly had an ace up its sleeve all along, thanks to its merger with Sprint earlier this year. While T-Mobile only had mostly acquired licenses for the very low 600MHz bands, Sprint has licensed and already begun deploying faster “mid-band” 2.5GHz even before the merger was finalized, and while T-Mobile initially decommissioned many of those towers, it was only so that it could redeploy transceivers more strategically to reuse those frequencies for its own 5G services.
Back in September, T-Mobile announced that it had expanded this “mid-band flavour” of 5G to 81 new cities, and it hasn’t rested on its laurels from there, as this week it’s announced that it’s doubled its mid-band 5G coverage, now encompassing nearly 410 cities and towns across the U.S.
What This Means
There’s no doubt that Verizon offers the fastest potential 5G speeds in the U.S. right now, but it’s important not to be misled by the marketing.
It’s entirely true that if you are fortunate enough to live and/or work within range of one of Verizon’s Ultra Wideband mmWave transceivers, you will potentially get staggeringly fast 5G throughput — Verizon claims up to 4Gbps under ideal conditions, and a number of reviews have confirmed this.
However, these opportunities are few and far between. mmWave 5G runs in the 28GHz — 39GHz bands, which means that it’s extremely short range — realistically not much better than you’d get from a good and powerful Wi-Fi network. This means that it takes Verizon a lot of transceivers to pull this kind of coverage off, and you’re more likely than not to encounter weak or dead zones in Verizon’s network.
That’s not to say that you won’t get 5G coverage elsewhere on Verizon, but if your iPhone isn’t showing that magical “5G UW” indicator, you’re not getting the Verizon performance advantage, at which point there may be less of an incentive to choose Verizon over any other carrier.
On the other hand, while T-Mobile’s 600MHz network only provides a nominal boost over 4G LTE speeds, the new 2.5GHz network, which continues to rapidly expand across the U.S., promises performance of around 300Mbps under normal use, and potential peak speeds of 1Gbps under ideal conditions.
T-Mobile calls this the “goldilocks” 5G spectrum, since it provides a “perfect mix of coverage and speed,” and because of its merger with Sprint, T-Mobile has more of this spectrum available to use than any other carrier — so much so that its rivals have complained to the FCC that T-Mobile has been hoarding spectrum.
As with the 81 cities added early last month, T-Mobile isn’t slowing down either; its goal is to provide mid-band 5G coverage to 100 million people by the end of this year. For now, you can find a full list of the cities that are covered today in T-Mobile’s announcement.