Does T-Mobile 5G Deliver Real 5G Speeds?


The end of 2019 saw multiple announcements around 5G deployment from all of the major wireless carriers, most recently with Verizon’s 5G Superbowl Camera, but the nationwide rollout of T-Mobile 5G is the most impressive, at least on the surface.

Considering AT&T and Verizon are touting wireless 5G rollouts in 20-30 cities, to think T-Mobile was able to cover over 2,000 cities and 200 million people at the same time is incredible. With any successful project, however, understanding the assets you’re working with, proper planning and follow-through are key in achieving massive rollout success. When reading about the T-Mobile 5G network, however, one factoid is glossed over: the “version” of 5G they chose to implement.

mmWave VS Sub-5Ghz low-bands.

As our clients ask us to come up with 5G integration plans for their network, we are careful to explain not all 5G is created equal. There are some distinct differences in the form of both advantages and disadvantages, based on the frequency of the spectrum used.  

When most people discuss 5G, whether they know it or not, they are generally considering the ultra-high speeds made available by mmWave. Those speeds, however, aren’t seen when mid, often referred to as Sub-6GHz, or low-bands are used. In fact, deployments in the low band may not see much higher speeds than advanced 4G connections can reach.

While T-Mobile 5G does use mmWave 5G in a few cities, their nationwide rollout utilizes the 600MHz low-band offering. AT&T and Verizon already had their own “first” claims in regard to 5G, so perhaps T-Mobile most likely wanted to lay claim to the first nationwide 5G network. In an industry where marketing is almost as important as the technology, the T-Mobile 5G is rollout is designed to challenge the big two as well as bolster their commitment to claims made to gain approval for their merger with Sprint. It’s not designed to deliver nationwide true 5G speeds that CIOs, CTOs or consumers expect.

Looking back at the technology of a low-band T-Mobile 5G, the carrier is currently delivering a nice uptick in download speeds, with some locations getting as high as 400-500 Mbps.  But when it comes to uploads those are mostly still going through 4G. But it’s not all bad news.

T-Mobile 5G Coverage Map
T-Mobile 5G Coverage Map. Courtesy T-Mobile

T-Mobile 5G Isn’t JUST About Speed

I often tell 3 Tree Tech clients, 5G isn’t solely about speed, and that’s certainly the case with a low-band offering. The T-Mobile 5G network should deliver greater reliability, enhanced capacity, and lower latency possible from relying on LTE network exclusively. 

It’s also important to note a low-band first approach might be the only possibility vs focusing exclusively on mmWave, in relation to 5G coverage area. Due to the limited range of higher frequencies, we may never see, and it may be extremely difficult to push out a full nationwide deployment of mmWave, aka “true” 5G. 

By utilizing the 600MHz spectrum for 5G T-Mobile, it’s also true T-Mobile didn’t have to deploy thousands of new towers or small cells. Instead, they simply upgraded connections, hardware, and software in their existing infrastructure. That’s not to say they didn’t have to add some new locations to truly cover the full nation, but by utilizing this frequency each 5G tower had more range and covered more ground then their existing 4G LTE footprint.  This is a major reason they spent $7.99 to acquire this spectrum back in 2017.

Will AT&T and Verizon Follow Suit?

While AT&T and Verizon focused more on mmWave to start, recently they both announced plans on deploying their own 5G networks using both low-band and Sub-6GHz in the future. AT&T says their low-band will be nationwide by mid-2020. Verizon however, has been quiet on their official timeframe.  

One thing to note is that while AT&T and Verizon will launch a low-band 5G option they will be deployed in 700MHz and 850Mhz frequency which will not provide quite as much range. Therefore, T-Mobile 5G may actually sport a slight edge in some cases and areas.

Where Does T-Mobile Go Next?

With AT&T and Verizon right behind them with their nationwide low-band 5G, T-Mobile will need to quickly develop their own sub-6GHz and mmWave quickly. This is a big reason the Sprint merger is so important to the overall T-Mobile 5G battle plan.

Because Sprint has been focused on using their mid-band 2.5Ghz spectrum for their 5G rollout, once the merger is finalized T-Mobile will be able to incorporate that into their offering quickly. In the meantime, they will likely continue to work on their mmWave footprint where it makes sense.

It is too early to say whether T-Mobiles 5G strategy will work the way they expect, allowing them to truly compete with AT&T and Verizon. What is clear, however, is that they understood the assets they had and developed what looks to be a smart strategy. The game is afoot. 

Photo Courtesy: Brian Ach/AP Images for T-Mobile

Chris Moeller of 3 Tree Tech
Chris Moeller

Chris Moeller is a 5G and IoT researcher at 3 Tree Tech. If you want to integrate IoT technology into your tech or need mobility infrastructure help, he’s willing to lend you his big brain. Reach out!

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