Verizon’s 5G on mmWave is crushing it, but for how long?

OpenSignal looked at 5G download speeds in five U.S. cities and found that Verizon is crushing it compared to the other big wireless carriers, so far. But some, including T-Mobile’s President of Technology Neville Ray, have questioned the wisdom of leading a 5G strategy with mmWave deployments. Verizon’s early lead with the high-band spectrum could begin to vanish as the other two carriers’ 5G deployments mature.

In OpenSignal’s latest research, Verizon’s 5G download speeds ranged from 338 Mbps to 508.3 Mbps in five cities: Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, New York and Washington D.C.  This compares to download speeds from AT&T and T-Mobile, ranging from 44.9 Mbps to 143.3 Mbps.

In each of the five cities, the average 5G download speed was over three times faster using Verizon than on either AT&T or T-Mobile. But OpenSignal notes that most of these measurements were taken before Verizon’s launch of its Nationwide 5G, which includes the use of lower frequency bands. As Verizon adds more lower frequency spectrum into the mix, its lead on speed will likely decline.

OpenSignal chart 1

While all three U.S. operators hold mmWave spectrum and have made 5G deployments on it, Verizon has been the biggest proponent of mmWave, by far. Until its Nationwide 5G launch in October, Verizon exclusively used mmWave for its 5G services.

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Curiously, Verizon’s mmWave download speeds are better than AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s mmWave download speeds.

OpenSignal Chart 2

Speaking with Fierce, OpenSignal’s lead analyst Ian Fogg said the variation in mmWave download speeds depends on how each carrier has deployed. Verizon has deployed very densely in some urban areas while the other two carriers have deployed less densely. One of the big downsides to mmWave is its limited propagation. Fogg said, “If you’re on the edge of the range of the signal, you may get more error correction,” among other factors that will slow the speed.

How long will Verizon's speed lead last?

T-Mobile’s Neville Ray has been saying for a couple years now that perhaps it wasn’t wise for Verizon to lead its 5G strategy with mmWave. During a presentation at the BCG and New Street Research 5G Conference this week, Ray again referred to “the overpromise and over commit of this millimeter wave thing.” He said the rollout of the iPhone 12 has made 5G real for many customers, but he indicated they’re set up for disappointment if they think their new phone is going to get them multi-gigabit speed of mmWave wherever they go. “It is mythical,” said Ray. “And I think Verizon has spent much of the last six, nine months trying to figure out how to get out of that story,” and “tell something that is more pragmatic.”

Ray has preached that you don't start with mmWave, you end with it. And T-Mobile has explained its 5G spectrum strategy with the analogy of the “layer cake.” The bottom layer of its cake is its 600 MHz spectrum, the middle layer is 2.5 GHz, and the top is mmWave.

RELATED: T-Mobile turns on 5G ‘layer cake’ in NYC with 2.5 GHz integration

But Verizon has been hamstrung by the spectrum it has available. It’s expected to bid heavily for mid-band spectrum in the upcoming C-Band auction.

Upload Speeds

In its newly released data, OpenSignal also reported on mmWave upload speeds, which are drastically lower than mmWave download speeds.

Since cellular networks are asymmetric, upload speeds are always much slower. “If you are sending information from a large antenna on a cell site, it’s easy to transmit down to a small phone,” said Fogg. “But when the phone is transmitting back, you have a small battery device that’s transmitting in the other direction.”

But since upload is used for such things as sharing photos and videos, consumers are going to want faster and faster upload speeds. Fogg noted that the cameras of smartphones get improved in each new generation, becoming more capable of high-resolution images that result in larger file sizes.

Aside from 5G being used to improve mobile broadband, the technology also promises to earn its return on investment for business use cases. One of those use cases will be fixed wireless access (FWA) deployments. In that case, the upload constraints could be mitigated by the types of devices deployed. Fogg noted that for FWA “you don’t have a battery constraint in the same way.” He said, “You’ll probably have a smaller antenna than you would on a cell tower. There’s still an asymmetry dynamic, but not quite the same.”