5G Coverage in the US
In 2021, Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T are amping up their 5G offerings and racing to deliver the best 5G service and coverage in the United States.
The recent mid-band auction has made cellular companies' 5G full deployment plans even more palpable. Mid-band spectrum 5G, now known as C-band in the networking industry, has been a long-coveted key to the 5G puzzle. It was largely controlled by the government but was recently auctioned to mobile carriers. All three major carriers made MHz spectrum purchases in the auction.
So far, low-band 5G has recorded similar speeds to 4G LTE, so it's not the ultra-fast data transmission that many associate with 5G. But its wavelengths are much longer than the other two spectrums, allowing data transmission over greater distances. Low-band 5G requires fewer nodes to be installed, making it a good choice for rural areas.
Previously, Verizon carried the baton on high-band, or millimeter-wave, spectrum, but lacked broader nationwide coverage. Now it's set to increase its 5G offering with a significant purchase in the C-band or mid-band auction. T-Mobile launched working 5G first in 2019 and has the broadest swath of low-band spectrum.
Standalone 5G, or standalone core, refers to networking that relies solely on 5G; currently, most 5G is set to drop back to 4G or LTE if it fails. Standalone core 5G is the goal for all 5G networks; it will allow the longed-for low-latency for IoT devices, applications, and automation.
All three carriers are actively investing in and deploying 5G service across the country. We survey each carrier's 5G coverage as of spring 2021 and the progress they have made.
US 5G networks
In the March 2021 C-band auction, Verizon spent 52.9 billion dollars on its rights to middle-ground 5G spectrum. It achieved 161 MHz in spectrum.
Verizon by far purchased the largest share in C-band in this spring's auction.
Verizon offers 5G Ultra Wideband in sections of a few US cities. 5G Nationwide, its combined 5G and LTE network, is much more widespread.
In the early stages of 5G deployment, Verizon was best known for its ultra wideband, or millimeter-wave, spectrum. These waves transmit incredibly fast 5G signals, but they don't pass through hard objects well or travel very far. Verizon is expanding its 5G offerings further, after investing heavily in the recent auction of mid-band wavelengths.
The mid-band wavelength spectrum is the compromise between mm-wave's extreme speed and low-band's far reach. Verizon has of course offered 5G Nationwide, its combination of 5G and 4G LTE speeds, but that isn't standalone 5G. Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) allows 4G, LTE, and 5G spectrums to coexist.
Verizon has also purchased fixed broadband for households. The iPhone 12 supports some mid-band spectrum already. And after its significant purchase in the auction, Verizon is preparing to provide more 5G coverage for not only densely populated metropolitan areas, but also a broader swath of the U.S.
Verizon announced that its 5G coverage had extended to 230 million customers, as of December 2020.
Verizon's 5G coverage map is heavily concentrated in the Northeast and California, as well as widespread in regions of the Midwest, Southeast, and Arizona.
Verizon has also partnered with Amazon Web Services to use an edge computing platform called AWS Wavelength. Through the platform, AWS computing and storage is available at the edge of Verizon's network, intended to reach developers who need low latency for creating applications.
Operations such as development and gaming require very low latency and quick response times. AWS Wavelength allows people at the network's edge to access those speeds, accomplished through Amazon Virtual Private Cloud. Wavelength is currently listed as available in 10 major US cities.
Verizon has announced plans to begin deploying C-band as soon as it's legally available, based on the terms of the auctioned spectrum. The nearest permitted deployment timeframe is the end of 2021. Verizon is already installing nodes. Recent agreements with hardware manufacturers SBA and Crown Castle will further the legalization processes for installing its national 5G technology more quickly.
Verizon also aims to provide wireless Internet, through 4G LTE or 5G, to 15 million households by the end of 2021.
Verizon seems unsure of its 5G standalone timeline, not releasing plans yet for 5G to broadly run on its own.
T-Mobile was modest in the C-band auction, compared to its competitors, spending over $9 billion. Confident in its already widespread coverage, T-Mobile plans to deploy C-band technology across select cities.
The Sprint acquisition, initiated in 2018 and completed in 2020, also provided T-Mobile with some mid-band spectrum — 2.5 GHz of it. Merging with Sprint pushed T-Mobile to achieve more 5G technology.
Ever since 2019, when it first deployed 5G, T-Mobile has aimed to provide widespread 5G coverage to not only metropolitan centers but also rural areas. That's why, using low-band 5G, it has achieved the greatest overall coverage early in the 5G race. That could change soon, as both Verizon and AT&T deploy C-band in late 2021 and early 2022.
However, T-Mobile has already deployed mid-band, which some of its customers actively use already. Its Ultra Capacity 5G uses the 2.5 GHz spectrum, which Sprint possessed when the two companies merged. That Ultra Capacity 5G covers 125 million customers.
T-Mobile's 5G coverage map shows a few patches of unavailability, mainly in the western states and a few areas in the Appalachians, but coverage is generally widespread and thorough.
T-Mobile already deployed standalone core — it first premiered the all-5G network in a small North Dakota town. One of T-Mobile's goals is showing customers that 5G is for all areas.
T-Mobile also plans to have more broadband customers in the next five years, expanding into the millions, according to details from Analyst Day earlier in 2021.
AT&T spent $27.4 billion on C-band, taking home 29 percent of the mid-range 5G spectrum.
From 2016 to 2020, AT&T invested 105 billion in 5G.
AT&T is also partnering with European cellular giant Nokia to install C-band technology.
5G+ is AT&T's high-band offering, and it's currently installed in 38 metropolitan areas.
Like other mm-wave 5G technologies, although 5G+ has limited reach and requires many nodes, it's incredibly fast, allowing almost real-time computing and communication on equipped devices.
AT&T's 5G Nationwide, a low-band spectrum, is slower than 5G+. It's also more widely deployed across the U.S. AT&T 5G is also at least partially present in over 14,000 cities and towns.
None of AT&T's 5G is standalone yet.
Most AT&T phone plans don't require extra pay to receive 5G coverage.
AT&T's 5G coverage map shows large concentrations in the Northeast and Midwest as well as Florida, Texas and California. It's missing both 4G LTE and 5G coverage in western states such as Nevada, Oregon and Idaho.
AT&T, like Verizon, has not clarified its standalone 5G plans.
However, it will also begin deploying C-band at the end of 2021. AT&T also plans to install 5G in 17 new venues and seven airports in the U.S.
AT&T will also deploy 5G+ in at least 30 retail locations. This technology will provide customers with IoT- and augmented reality (AR) shopping experiences.
All three wireless carriers are working to make 5G available to more customers. They've taken different approaches but all three are set to deploy 5G more thoroughly over the course of the next few years.
Verizon, having purchased the largest share of C-band spectrum, can now move past its high-speed but limited millimeter-wave 5G and install the technology more widely. T-Mobile, already reaching customers in rural areas, can continue spreading its range. And AT&T, with its low-band Nationwide network, high-band 5G+ and second-largest C-band purchase, plans to begin installing mid-range 5G as soon as possible.
In 2023, the second swath of available C-band spectrum will be ready for deployment. The carriers can then make it available to their customers.
Before this year, Verizon has primarily focused on mm-wave 5G for metropolitan areas and densely populated venues. For customers in large cities who want quickly-available 5G technology, Verizon already offers it in select cities and areas.
T-Mobile already reaches millions of customers with its low-band spectrum. Many rural areas have 5G available to them at least some of the time. T-Mobile also plans to deploy high-band spectrum in cities, further establishing its 5G position.
AT&T has invested in C-band and is also in the thick of 5G deployment for venues. For customers in multiple regions, AT&T's combination of widespread low-band coverage and metropolitan mm-wave, as well as its quickly upcoming deployment of C-band, serves as an attractive in-between.