US mobile customers are almost never able to connect to millimeter-wave networks even though the cellular industry and Verizon in particular have spent years hyping the fastest form of 5G.
AT&T and T-Mobile customers with devices capable of using millimeter-wave networks were connected to mmWave 5G only 0.5 percent of the time during the 90-day period between January 16 and April 15, 2021, according to an OpenSignal report released today. Even on Verizon, the carrier with the most aggressive rollout of mmWave 5G, users with compatible devices spent 0.8 percent of their time on the high-frequency network that uses its large capacity to provide faster speeds than low- and mid-band spectrum.
Average download speeds on mmWave 5G were 232.7Mbps for AT&T, 215.3Mbps for T-Mobile, and 692.9Mbps for Verizon. You can see the average time connected to mmWave 5G and the average speeds in these charts from OpenSignal:
The “average time connected to mmWave 5G” chart represents the percentage of time connected to mmWave among users who have a mmWave 5G-capable device and have connected to mmWave at least once, OpenSignal told Ars today. That means the numbers aren’t driven down by devices that simply aren’t new enough to use mmWave 5G—the percentages for all three major carriers are under 1 percent when evaluating users who definitely have devices compatible with the mmWave networks.
“In Opensignal’s analytics, we consistently see our Verizon mmWave 5G users experiencing a higher average time connected to mmWave 5G than users on the other US carriers,” the report said. “In this 90-day period, our Verizon users saw a mean time connected to mmWave 5G of 0.8 percent compared with 0.5 percent on AT&T and T-Mobile. However, despite Verizon appearing to be ahead this result actually represents a statistical tie because of overlapping confidence intervals with AT&T.” All three major carriers have “plenty of scope to increase the availability of mmWave 5G services,” the report noted.
Overall 5G availability between 11% and 33%
Another report released by OpenSignal today said that—when counting 5G on all spectrum bands, not just mmWave—5G was available 33.1 percent of the time on T-Mobile, 20.5 percent of the time on AT&T, and 11.2 percent of the time on Verizon.
OpenSignal’s speed-test apps “collect billions of individual measurements every day from over 100 million devices worldwide,” producing “the vast majority of our data via automated tests that run in the background,” the testing firm says.
Verizon’s lead in mmWave 5G is not surprising because “Verizon’s 5G deployment strategy has placed a strong emphasis on mmWave while T-Mobile has focused on its 600 MHz and its 2.5 GHz spectrum assets for 5G services, and AT&T has mainly used low-band for 5G so far,” OpenSignal said.
mmWave use could rise in summer
mmWave 5G was never likely to become the primary form of mobile connectivity because the high-frequency radio waves don’t travel far and are easily blocked by walls and other obstacles. The pandemic has also limited opportunities for people to connect to mmWave 5G because the technology makes the most sense in heavily populated outdoor areas and at large events.
“With the pandemic, large groups of people were not congregating as much in city centers, sports stadiums, or shopping malls—so we haven’t yet seen the full benefit of mmWave 5G services,” OpenSignal VP of Analysis Ian Fogg told Ars in response to our questions. “Additionally, we will likely see seasonal differences in the time users spend connected to mmWave, given that mmWave sites are mostly located outdoors.”
Fogg noted that “the physics of high-frequency mmWave spectrum bands means signals that originate outdoors tend to stay outdoors” and that people obviously spend more time outdoors in the summer than the winter. However, “when we see more mmWave deployed inside large buildings such as shopping malls or metro systems, seasonality will reduce,” he said.
Those caveats mean that it’s too early to write off mmWave 5G as a major player in mobile Internet use. But so far, mmWave 5G is barely making a ripple on US mobile connectivity, and it is not clear whether it will ever become a big factor for smartphone users. The technology could end up helping many home-Internet users get faster speeds through point-to-point connections, but most people would prefer a wired connection. Moreover, the emergence of SpaceX Starlink’s low Earth orbit satellite service may reduce interest in mmWave 5G for home Internet, and availability for Verizon’s mmWave 5G Home service is very limited. T-Mobile recently launched a 5G home Internet service, but it doesn’t use mmWave.
Massive hype, then reality
Verizon claimed in July 2019 that “5G Ultra Wideband,” its marketing name for mmWave, “has the potential to drive broad, systemic transformation that not only benefits consumers and enterprises, but humanity as a whole.”
Verizon wrote, with perhaps some hyperbole:
5G promises more than just a faster download. The fifth generation of wireless represents a technological breakthrough that has been likened to prior Industrial Revolutions involving electricity, the steam engine, and the personal computer. It has the potential to be a watershed moment in history, one that will fundamentally change the way we live, work, learn and play. The leap from 3G to 4G was huge, but the one from 4G to 5G will likely be transformational, upending entire industries and creating new ones overnight.
Anything would be possible with Verizon’s mmWave 5G, the company claimed. “At the end of the day, 5G Ultra Wideband is about unparalleled digital experiences. If people can dream it, Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband can help deliver it.”
Verizon had launched mmWave 5G in April 2019 in “select areas” of Minneapolis and Chicago, but reviewers had trouble even finding a signal. Later that year, it became clear that Verizon 5G wasn’t capable of covering an entire NFL stadium or an NBA arena.
In April 2018, AT&T boasted of 5G trials that produced “gigabit wireless speeds on mmWave spectrum in both line-of-sight and some non-line-of-sight conditions.” AT&T claimed at the time that mobile 5G would “bring to life experiences like virtual reality, future driverless cars, immersive 4K video, and more.” The company said its mmWave 5G signals were strong enough to withstand “rain, snow, or other weather events” and to “penetrate materials such as significant foliage, glass, and even walls better than initially anticipated.”
But when AT&T finally launched 5G, it was using lower spectrum bands and producing only 4G-like speeds. AT&T also deliberately tried to confuse customers by renaming its 4G LTE-Advanced service “5G E.”
5G hype used for lobbying and deregulation
Beginning in 2018, T-Mobile used the promise of 5G to lobby for government approval of its acquisition of Sprint, and then-Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai claimed the need for 5G justified deregulation and big reductions in fees paid by carriers to local governments.
But Verizon said that Pai overturning local rules and fees would have no impact on the pace of its 5G rollout. T-Mobile was publicly casting doubt on the usefulness of mmWave 5G by at least April 2019, when Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray wrote that millimeter-wave spectrum used for 5G “will never materially scale beyond small pockets of 5G hotspots in dense urban environments.” Verizon subsequently acknowledged that mmWave isn’t for widespread coverage.
Verizon had to tamp down 5G claims
In July 2020, Light Reading wrote that “Verizon appears to be the only US operator with plans to significantly expand its 5G network in millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum,” as T-Mobile and AT&T weren’t showing much enthusiasm for the high-frequency radio waves.
While 5G is deployed on a mix of low to high-frequency spectrum, Verizon said in May 2020 that non-mmWave 5G would only provide small improvements compared to 4G in the near term. Verizon said that customers will eventually see “dramatic improvements” but didn’t say when that would happen.
In July 2020, after a complaint from AT&T to the advertising industry’s self-regulating body, Verizon reluctantly agreed to stop running ads that falsely implied the carrier’s 5G mobile service was available throughout the United States. The National Advertising Division said that during its investigation, Verizon did not dispute that its “5G coverage is primarily restricted to outdoor locations in certain neighborhoods and varies from block to block.”
Verizon has since launched 5G more broadly on the same spectrum bands used for 4G. But Verizon is now in third place in average 5G download speed, according to OpenSignal.
“Our T-Mobile users saw average 5G download speeds of 71.3Mbps, ahead of AT&T users’ score of 54.9Mbps and Verizon on 47.7Mbps,” OpenSignal’s 5G report said. “Our T-Mobile users’ average 5G download speed has increased by an impressive 13.2Mbps compared to our January 5G report, while our users on AT&T and Verizon saw their average speeds more or less stationary at 54.9Mbps and 47.7Mbps, respectively.”
Including both 5G and previous-generation networks, average download speeds were 33.2Mbps on AT&T, 28.9Mbps on Verizon, and 28.8Mbps on T-Mobile, an OpenSignal report in January 2021 found. While T-Mobile leads the three carriers in overall 5G availability at 33.1 percent, OpenSignal’s January report found that 4G was available between 96 and 98 percent of the time on all three major carriers.