Verizon gives sneak peek of pre-commercial C-band in LA

A group of journalists and analysts recently received a sneak peek of Verizon’s pre-commercial C-band 5G service in downtown Los Angeles, complete with handsets tuned to the C-band in an area right next to – what else in December? – an ice rink.

Fierce wasn’t there, but Bill Ho, principal analyst at 556 Ventures, posted on Twitter that he was able to get download speeds of 649 Mbps, with upload of 63 Mbps.

Verizon spent a hefty $45 billion on C-band spectrum so it’s eager to commercially deploy it and get it into the hands of consumers with compatible devices. Rival AT&T spent more than $23.4 billion on C-band spectrum, and it’s in a similar boat.

But both AT&T and Verizon agreed to hold off commercially deploying C-band spectrum for a month longer than originally intended, to January 5, 2022, so that the aviation community has more time to deal with radio altimeter concerns. That’s been the subject of headlines in recent weeks and days.

RELATED: Airline execs blast away at C-band before commercial deployments

However, that wasn’t the thrust of Thursday’s demo, which was conducted in the LA Live entertainment district of downtown Los Angeles and chronicled in this article. It’s the area around the former Staples Center (now Arena and the Microsoft Theater) which is where the Los Angeles Lakers and other home teams play, so it’s well trafficked, with the aforementioned ice rink and all kinds of shops.

A Verizon spokesperson said they set up a few devices to access the network in the area – a few blocks wide – to show off the power of C-band. The C-band system wasn’t open to just anybody – commercial devices couldn’t access it. Infrastructure in the area was supplied by Ericsson.

Verizon hasn’t provided an exact time for when the commercial C-band service will launch, but reiterated its commitment to cover 100 million people by the end of March. “We’re confident we’ll do that,” the spokesperson said on Friday. 

Participants in the demo were given Samsung S21 devices, but other compatible C-band devices include the Apple iPhone 12 and iPhone 13, Ho said. Given those are the first devices to be supported, Ho said his take-away is the premium subscribers will be taken care of first. “All that suggests is the people who get [those devices] are usually premium customers or high-value subscribers,” he noted. 

Of course, Verizon’s intent was to show off the unique power of C-band, where on an unencubered network with few users the speed and capacity are compatible with millimeter wave (mmWave) but the 3.7 GHz C-band has much farther range. 

The spokesperson said some folks reported seeing consistent download speeds over 200 Mbps in an underground parking garage, and faster than that in a moving elevator with speeds out in the open approaching a gig at times. C-band nodes were often a half a mile away from the test area and still provided broadband speed and performance. “This will allow us to expand our 5G Ultra Wideband service for mobility and fixed wireless access use cases to millions more people,” the spokesperson said via email.  

RELATED: Verizon defends C-band plans

Verizon used 60 MHz of C-band spectrum for this test. Because the phones were locked to C-band, that was the only network the testers saw on those phones. Some reporters also used their own phones which would have had access to LTE and mmWave, but not C-band.

Catching up to T-Mobile

While aviation-related delays were not the main event of this demo, Verizon reiterated the goal of serving 100 million PoPs with C-band by the end of Q1, “which says to me that come hell or high water, they’re going to resolve that whole FAA thing,” Ho said.  

The big question is whether Verizon can catch up to T-Mobile in mid-band 5G in a way that’s fast enough, perception-wise or other, so that T-Mobile’s advantage doesn’t significantly hurt Verizon’s business.

“T-Mobile is building out simply because they’ve got it and they know that they want to extend the competitive gap,” Ho said.

From Verizon’s standpoint, they’re moving very fast – and from AT&T’s standpoint, “they’re doing it too, but maybe not as telegraphed as much as Verizon – and that is to limit the gap, or minimize the gap” that T-Mobile has created.

That, in part, is because “in my opinion, everybody is going after enterprise,” Ho added. That said, there are a lot of 5G growth sectors, such as fixed wireless access (FWA) and enterprise, both areas where T-Mobile intends to grow.

“T-Mobile is going after enterprise, and they’re showing the speed and capability. Verizon has a huge enterprise base, so they need to bring that up to show and minimize any competitive gaps. T-Mobile says they’re two years ahead,” and that’s a snapshot in time.

Once Verizon turns on that C-band, “they kind of minimize that whole argument,” leading to questions as to whether or not T-Mobile’s head-start is indeed two years, Ho added.

“It’s really the marketing message that T-Mobile has been saying for a while,” he said. “If Verizon gets it done fast, then they can minimize that marketing message totally.”