Verizon ramps C-band speeds with Massive MIMO

Verizon is deploying its C-band spectrum as fast as it can, which doesn’t come as a surprise since it needs to narrow the mid-band 5G spectrum gap with rival T-Mobile.

Sure, it’s taking advantage of the 4G LTE cell site locations, so it doesn’t involve a lot of extra leg work ascertaining the sites for C-band gear.

That’s helped enable the company to cover 100 million people with its C-band 3.7 GHz spectrum, with the expectation of covering 175 million people by year-end 2022 – about a full year ahead of earlier projections. (By comparison, T-Mobile last year announced that it covers about 200 million PoPs (points of presence) with its 2.5 GHz spectrum.)

Bill Stone, vice president of Technology Development and Planning at Verizon, said on this week’s Recon Analytics podcast that it’s “got great momentum” with the C-band deployment.

That shouldn’t be surprising given its years of experience adding new spectrum bands from AWS and 700 MHz. But Verizon has been adding C-band sites faster than what it did with these other bands.

“This is the fastest we’ve ever deployed a new band, ever,” Stone said, echoing what CTO Kyle Malady said during an investor event last week.

High praise for 64T64R

Last week, Malady alluded to advancements in antenna technology, such as with Massive MIMO, that enable it to get a lot more out of the same amount of spectrum resources.

Typically, signals in lower spectrum bands travel farther and provide better coverage than the higher bands. C-band is in the 3.7 GHz spectrum range and AWS is the 1700-2100 MHz range, so getting better coverage with C-band is a substantial feat.

Stone said the 64T64R Massive MIMO technology that Verizon is using has exceeded expectations. “We’re roughly getting coverage that’s equivalent to the AWS band today,” he said.

Verizon is using the latest Massive MIMO technology in the 64T64R configuration, which is an advanced antenna technology that provides much more focused gain in the direction of its users, he said. That significantly improves the uplink performance, which is the link from the customer device back to the cell site.

“That link is typically the limiting factor in coverage,” he said. “So the gains we’re getting from Massive MIMO” make up for the propagation loss typically seen between the lower frequencies and higher C-band frequencies.  

A lot of times, consumers could barely see a difference between 4G and 5G even though 5G promises a much better experience. Recon Analytics analyst Roger Entner said he used to say the speed difference between 4G and 5G was “like 10%,” but with Massive MIMO, “it’s 180%,” he said. “I think the difference in spectral efficiency is also massive.”

Stone agreed, adding that with C-band alone, “we’re seeing performance of greater than 900 megabits a second and we’re also taking advantage of all the latest and greatest features, such as carrier aggregation.”

With carrier aggregation and combining C-band with other spectrum bands, they’re getting speeds greater than 1 gigabit per second, he said.

It’s worth noting that so far, Verizon is only using a portion of the C-band spectrum that it will have at its disposal. Verizon acquired on average 161 megahertz of C-band spectrum depth, but it’s currently accessing only the first 60 megahertz of that.  

The rest of the C-band spectrum it won at auction will become available in 2023, when it will have access to the full 161 megahertz, giving it anywhere from 140 to 200 megahertz of C-band spectrum per market since it varies by market.  

The bottom line is the performance and capacity they’re seeing from C-band is only going to get better. “It’s really just early days with C-band,” Stone said.