T-Mobile’s standalone 5G benefits rural areas most, but speeds lag– Opensignal

A new Opensignal report shows that rural areas are benefiting most from boosts in 5G availability after T-Mobile’s launch of a nationwide standalone (SA) 5G network last year, but a focus on low-band 600 MHz for SA has left speeds lacking.

Compared to urban users, 5G consumers in rural locations are spending a greater percentage of time connected 5G since T-Mobile’s August SA launch, according to Opensignal's analysis, though both geographies saw increased 5G availability and big latency improvements.  

Nearly all early 5G deployments have been in non-standalone (NSA) mode, which relies on 4G LTE anchor in the core. But most operators plan to shift to SA where the network no longer leans on 4G LTE, and opens the door for advanced 5G capabilities thanks to changes in the core. T-Mobile was the first to launch a nationwide SA 5G network in the U.S.

Verizon last year expected to fully commercialize its 5G standalone core in 2021, and AT&T indicated plans to scale SA this year as well.

RELATED: T-Mobile launches nationwide 5G standalone network

T-Mobile’s Neville Ray shared a statement that talked up availability and latency improvements thanks to standalone 5G.

“Standalone 5G brings immediate benefits to customers by increasing coverage and improving network response times. And it lays the foundation for 5G’s true potential in the future, making groundbreaking applications like self-driving vehicles, supercharged IoT, real-time translation and more possible,” stated Ray, President of Technology at T-Mobile. “T-Mobile is America’s 5G leader in every sense of the word, with the largest, fastest and most advanced 5G network. We launched the world’s first nationwide standalone 5G network and are still the only one in the U.S. with standalone 5G."

For its analysis, Opensignal collected data on the average user experience for the two months prior to T-Mobile’s SA 5G launch, and then 30 days ending one month and five months after the deployment.

The analysis suggests T-Mobile has only been using the 600 MHz band for SA 5G, which the operator said initially over the summer when the SA deployment expanded its 5G footprint by about 30%.  

While the vast majority of T-Mobile 5G users are still connecting to NSA, overall 5G availability – or the amount of time users were connected to 5G – jumped in the months after SA rollout.

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At the time of T-Mobile’s SA launch, 5G availability was 26.9% and 24.5% for urban and rural users, respectively. Fast forward five months and rural 5G availability spiked to 33.3% – an even bigger bump than urban users saw - which grew to reach 31.5%.

Greater 5G availability in rural areas also showed up in how often those users were connected to the standalone network, which was 5.9% of the time five months in, versus 3.7% for urban users. 

And standalone accounted for a bigger portion of 5G measurement readings in rural areas (26.6%) compared to urban (14.7%), though the remaining lion’s share were still on NSA for both geographies (85.3% urban, 73.4% rural).

T-Mobile's 5G availability at the time of standalone launch and five months later. (Opensignal)

“Our data therefore shows that T-Mobile’s standalone 5G network has significantly increased its average 5G Availability across both urban and rural areas, but actually benefited rural areas the most, as that is where T-Mobile users were now spending the largest proportion of their time connected to 5G, thanks to SA,” wrote Opensignal’s Francesco Rizzato in the analysis.

SA speeds lag

Notably, T-Mobile’s SA 5G network delivered slower average download speeds than non-standalone connections across the board.

Five months after the launch, 5G users connecting to T-Mobile’s NSA 5G had average download speeds of 64.4 Mbps in urban areas and 53.4 Mbps in rural locations. Although consumers connected to 5G more often, Opensignal reported significantly slower speeds on standalone at 28.6 Mbps and 30 Mbps for urban and rural, respectively.

The company attributed this to T-Mobile’s focus on SA only using its low-band 600 MHz spectrum 5G, which has farther signal reach (ie: greater coverage) but lacked added bandwidth NSA connections get from mid-band 4G/LTE.  

But alongside a 4G/LTE anchor band, T-Mobile has been deploying midband 2.5 GHz spectrum to use for non-standalone 5G as well, which Rizzato said also makes a difference.

“This would mean that T-Mobile’s 2.5 GHz 5G deployments partly explains the difference in the average 5G Download Speeds we have observed on standalone compared to non-standalone 5G,” Rizzato told Fierce via email. “But in the sense that those deployments have been increasing the average download speeds on NSA 5G only.”

Another contributing factor, according to Opensignal, is the availability of devices that can aggregate both Frequency Division Duplex (FDD) and Time Division Duplex (TDD) bands. T-Mobile’s higher-band 2.5 GHz is TDD, while the lower-band 600 MHz is FDD.

The report noted that only the newest phones like the Samsung Galaxy S21, sporting Qualcomm's X60 chipset, can support carrier aggregation between the two.

RELATED: Large scale carrier aggregation for the win: Entner

Carrier aggregation is a way to combine separate spectrum resources in an aggregated channel for added bandwidth, which can translate to more capacity to support sustained high speeds.

“As T-Mobile users adopt the latest smartphone models that support 5G carrier aggregation of its low-band and mid-band spectrum (i.e., both FD and TD bands), then we expect T-Mobile to start using its 2.5 GHz for SA 5G, and SA download speeds will likely rise as a result,” wrote Rizzato in the analysis.

 5G core improves latency

One of the benefits linked to moving to standalone 5G is improved latency, or a quicker round trip time.

This was seen in Opensignal results, where T-Mobile’s SA 5G network improved end-to-end latency by more than 20% (23.8% urban areas, 21.6% in rural).

For consumers, latency comes up for things like online gaming, where network responsiveness is key. In those instances, a shorter lag time can be more important than download speeds.

“Lower, faster, latencies are important for the ongoing real time communication of lots of small pieces of information on the state of a multiplayer game — other player positions, objects, weapons, player interactions, map changes due to player activity — while download speed is useful to install big game updates,” Rizzato said in emailed comments.