OpenSignal: T-Mobile’s 5G speeds are #1 in U.S. thanks to 2.5 GHz mid-band spectrum

The U.S. 5G experience is in the middle of a period of great change.  U.S. wireless carriers will be soon be able to start using new mid-band spectrum (3.7 GHz, or C-band) in 46 markets from December. Together they have spent a combined $81.11bn in licences to improve the 5G experience with this additional capacity. Already, Opensignal has observed an impressive rise in T-Mobile users’ 5G Download Speed enabled by T-Mobile’s existing mid-band spectrum. Our T-Mobile 5G users saw their average 5G download speeds soar by 66.5%, from 71.3 Mbps in Opensignal’s April 2021 5G Experience report to 118.7 Mbps in the latest report published in October 2021.

This means that in our most recent analysis T-Mobile led by 62.7 Mbps over second placed Verizon and 67.2 Mbps over AT&T — with 5G download speeds more than twice as fast as those achieved by their competitors. In our new analysis we see that T-Mobile’s use of its 2.5 GHz mid-band spectrum enabled this increase and non-standalone access was important here. Furthermore, this change helps explain the different amounts that each carrier spent in the C-band auction: Verizon, $45.45bn; AT&T, $23.41bn; while T-Mobile spent significantly less at $9.34bn.

To explain the change in 5G experience observed by our  T-Mobile users, we analyzed their average 5G download speeds over time looking at the two different spectrum bands that the operator is focusing its 5G deployment efforts on — the 600 MHz (NR band 71) and 2.5 GHz (NR band 41).

Our analysis shows that T-Mobile’s surge in 5G Download Speed was driven by its ongoing deployment of the 2.5 GHz band. We observed that, not only T-Mobile expanded its use of the 2.5 GHz band over time, but the operator has also very likely increased the amount of spectrum capacity allocated for 5G in that band. In fact, we have seen the average 5G download speeds experienced by our T-Mobile users when connected to the 2.5 GHz band increase by more than 40% rising from 170.1 Mbps in March 2021 to 239.3 Mbps in September 2021. By contrast, average 5G speeds on the 600 MHz band had no statistically significant change and remained flat at slightly below 30 Mbps.

Notably, the bulk of the boost on the 2.5GHz band happened between March and July 2021 —an increase of 39.3% — after that average 5G speeds remained stable just above 235 Mbps. For context, in September 2021 T-Mobile said that it had deployed 60-80 MHz of the mid-band, up from the 40-50MHz it had been using in late 2020, and that stated that it is aiming to use 100 MHz on sites by the end of the year. Additional spectrum capacity makes it easier for users to see higher 5G speeds.

We saw much slower speeds that changed little when our T-Mobile users connected to the 600 MHz band. This is not surprising, given the propagation characteristics and amount of spectrum that T-Mobile owns on this band. Low bands like 600 MHz provide mobile coverage to wider areas with fewer cells deployed, but at a cost of more limited capacity. Mid-bands like 2.5 GHz, which T-Mobile acquired after its merger with Sprint, usually offer higher capacity, but need more cells per square mile to achieve similar coverage to the low bands.

T-Mobile refers to its 5G spectrum deployment strategy as a ‘layer cake’ — with low bands used for wide coverage, complemented by mid and higher frequency bands to provide greater capacity for small and dense city areas. The way T-Mobile uses these spectrum bands is consistent with what we observed in our analysis.

We then looked at the proportions of 5G readings that we collected when our users were connected to T-Mobile’s 600 MHz and 2.5 GHz bands. The share of 5G readings observed on the 2.5 GHz band has increased more than three times, from nearly 9% in March 2021 to over 27% in September 2021. This means that T-Mobile 5G users are able to access the 2.5GHz band more easily which further explains the increase in the overall 5G speed seen by T-Mobile users.

We investigated the role of standalone access (SA) and non-standalone access (NSA) 5G in explaining T-Mobile’s experience, building on our previous analysis of standalone 5G on T-Mobile. Now, we can see that the 2.5 GHz band is predominantly used with NSA and so SA is not the key reason for the improvement in 5G speeds (although it likely does continue to have other benefits).

Perhaps counterintuitively, the average 5G download speed our users saw on the 600 MHz band with SA was slower than on NSA. In part, this is because of the role of 4G bands in supporting the 5G experience when a smartphone is in NSA mode as we have seen in other markets (for example South Korea or in Europe).

Opensignal’s latest report validates what our customers already know – T-Mobile’s differentiated approach to 5G is delivering meaningful 5G experiences now with ever-increasing speeds and expanding coverage,” said Neville Ray, president of Technology at T-Mobile, in a statement. “Our two-year lead on building 5G will continue as we add even more Ultra Capacity coverage and expand it to reach 200 million people nationwide this year.  T-Mobile customers benefit from a real 5G network that today can power immersive and transformative experiences.”

T-Mobile justifiably claims they have the largest, fastest and most reliable 5G network. Nearly a dozen independent third-party reports this year also show how T-Mobile’s differentiated 5G deployment delivers meaningful connections to customers – naming T-Mobile 5G #1 in nationwide speed and availability. After recently launching a new Ultra Capacity 5G icon showing customers when they are in an area where they can tap into T-Mobile’s fastest 5G speeds, the number of customers testing T-Mobile’s Ultra Capacity 5G network increased. As customers learned how broadly Ultra Capacity 5G is available, they also experienced how game-changing mid-band 5G can be.

AT&T and Verizon will seek to boost their 5G experience with mid-band soon:

Our analysis shows that T-Mobile’s acquisition of Sprint’s mid-band spectrum assets through the merger allowed it to build a substantial lead over its competitors as measured in our recent USA 5G Experience reports. T-Mobile now has a significant competitive advantage over its competitors, which don’t have access to any mid-band spectrum bands just yet.

However, everything will change soon, as U.S. operators purchased licenses in the C-band spectrum band (3.7 – 3.98 GHz) during Auction 107 earlier this year. In fact, the first tranche of this C-band spectrum will be available for use by December 2021. Plus the second portion will be available by the end of 2023. T-Mobile’s 5G experience highlights the importance for Verizon and AT&T to maximize their use of new mid-band spectrum.


One thought on “OpenSignal: T-Mobile’s 5G speeds are #1 in U.S. thanks to 2.5 GHz mid-band spectrum

  1. T-Mobile notches 4.95 Gbps on 5G standalone network

    T-Mobile is claiming a new first for standalone 5G. The operator used a combo of 2.5 GHz and mmWave spectrum to reach nearly 5 Gbps on its commercial SA 5G network.

    T-Mobile said it’s the world’s first New Radio Dual Connectivity (NR DC) data call on a commercial standalone 5G network, which resulted in download speeds of 4.95 Gbps. The data session took place in the September-October timeframe on a single site in Southern California, utilizing 100 MHz of 2.5 GHz spectrum and 800 MHz of mmWave, according to a T-Mobile spokesperson. Ericsson provided the network gear, and the call was conducted on a test device, the spokesperson said.

    The mmWave portion used spectrum in the 39 GHz band. T-Mobile has long touted a layer cake strategy for 5G but put far less emphasis on mmWave than competitors like Verizon in early days – instead focusing on low-band 600 MHz for coverage and now 2.5 GHz since it later amassed a trove of mid-band spectrum from Sprint that provides a mix of coverage and capacity.

    At the FCC’s third millimeter wave auction T-Mobile spent around $931 million to buy licenses in the 47 GHz and 39 GHz bands. Limited deployments, for example to boost capacity before big events like the Super Bowl LV in Tampa earlier this year or in the major market of Las Vegas, have used 39 GHz. Other locations like New York and Los Angeles have used 28 GHz.

    While T-Mobile holds the bragging rights of first operator to deploy a nationwide 5G SA network at scale (and still the only U.S. carrier to do so) it hasn’t made much noise about impacts since the rollout.

    RELATED: How’s 5G standalone doing in the U.S.?

    During third quarter earnings results this week, T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert made a short mention of 5G SA efforts and called out enterprise interest in advanced capabilities.

    “We’ve already seen an increase in our win share for traditional postpaid services and we’re well positioned to capture advanced 5G services with the most widely built out 5G network and the only stand-alone 5G core, which is exactly why many large enterprises are in active trials with T-Mobile for advanced capabilities like mobile edge compute and private networks,” Sievert said. “And let me remind you that these advanced 5G services represent upside to our plan.”

    The recent test focused on throughput although advanced capabilities like network slicing or ultra-low latency tend to be a focus of standalone 5G benefits, rather than straight speed gains. For 5G speeds, like in T-Mobile’s recent data call, spectrum resources and technologies like carrier aggregation or dual connectivity seem to get more attention. That was illustrated in recent Opensignal testing that showed T-Mobile’s 5G service using additional 2.5 GHz spectrum boosted user speeds significantly – but standalone 5G wasn’t the main driver.

    T-Mobile until this point has largely focused on 600 MHz for users connected to the SA 5G network, who actually saw slower speeds than those on non-standalone (NSA) 5G which also incorporate 4G LTE mid-band frequencies to support 5G, according to Opensignal.

    T-Mobile and U.S. carriers AT&T and Verizon all started initial 5G deployments in NSA mode, which helps get 5G up and running faster by having the option to still lean on 4G.

    “Now, we can see that the 2.5 GHz band is predominantly used with NSA and so SA is not the key reason for the improvement in 5G speeds (although it likely does continue to have other benefits),” wrote Opensignal in an October 27 analysis.

    Still, 5G experience improved as latencies dropped with help from the SA core and network reach expanded with the rollout, according to an earlier report.

    “T-Mobile appears to have initially targeted its use of SA 5G to boost the reach of its 5G network, and therefore used its 600 MHz band for SA 5G — a low band that generally propagates further compared to higher bands like its 2.5 GHz band, but doesn’t allow for the same speeds,” Opensignal concluded in a February report on the operator’s 5G SA performance.

    However, as T-Mobile’s most recent test shows, a mix of 2.5 GHz and mmWave with SA 5G dual connectivity can deliver ultra-fast results.

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