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AT&T and Verizon Debut Faster, More Widely Available 5G Service

5G support arrived for Apple users with the iPhone 12 models in late 2020. But, as I noted in “The iPhone Gets 5G, but What’s It Like in Real-World Use?” (19 November 2020), the high-speed wireless data service’s performance differed dramatically depending on where you lived and which wireless carrier you used. At the time, T-Mobile was the best 5G carrier option for most people in the United States because of its comprehensive three-tier service:

  • Blazingly fast “high-band” service, technically known as millimeter wave, in pockets of some cities
  • Slower but still zippy “middle-band” service blanketing hundreds of cities and towns
  • “Low-band” service bathing much of the country (including rural areas) with data speeds roughly on par with traditional 4G LTE

T-Mobile cake demonstrating 5G

Rival carriers AT&T and Verizon were at a major competitive disadvantage because they could provide only low-band 5G service nationwide, supplemented with high-band service in nooks and crannies of a few major cities. In the middle, neither AT&T nor Verizon could offer service because they lacked access to the necessary parts of the spectrum.

That changed on 19 January 2022 when AT&T and Verizon flipped the switch on C-band support, which refers to a swath of radio airwaves in the mid-band spectrum, similar to those used by T-Mobile. C-band support provides download speeds on the order of 1 gigabit per second under ideal conditions, though everyday performance is likely to be slower.

If the term “C-band” sounds familiar, it may be because you remember the days of large C-band satellite dishes that have now largely been replaced by smaller, fixed Ku-band dishes like those from Dish and DirecTV.

This new swath of spectrum has caused yet more controversy for 5G (see “Worried about 5G and Cancer? Here’s Why Wireless Networks Pose No Known Health Risk,” 6 December 2019). AT&T and Verizon have been tussling with the Federal Aviation Administration over the agency’s worries that the new wireless service might interfere with certain airplane radio altimeters that rely on similar spectrum. These concerns triggered delays in C-band deployment and more recently prompted the wireless carriers to hold off on activating some 5G towers near airports. James Fallows has another excellent summary of the situation.

As a practical matter for iPhone users, this quarrel has little effect on their ability to access C-band service. However, other factors might limit access for a while.

How to Tap into C-band

On the hardware front, the news is all good. If your device supports 5G, it can use AT&T and Verizon’s mid-band spectrum, along with their low-band and (if you are precisely in the right urban location) high-band services.

Supported devices include iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 models, along with 5G-capable iPads, such as current iPad Pro models, along with the sixth-generation iPad mini.

However, you need the right wireless plan. That’s not an issue for AT&T users because the mid-band service is automatically available with any plan that offers 5G access at no extra charge. However, if you’re a Verizon user, check out the 5G Play More, 5G Do More, and 5G Get More plans. Verizon’s entry-level 5G Start plan works with low-band but not mid- or high-band service.

You also need to reside in the right location to get C-band access. That’s where Verizon and AT&T diverge:

  • For would-be AT&T users of the C-band spectrum, the news is not great. The carrier has announced availability in limited parts of eight US metro areas and regions: Austin, Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth, Detroit, Houston, Jacksonville, Orlando, and South Florida.
  • Verizon announced its C-band service is available to about 90 million people in 46 metropolitan areas as of 19 January 2022. It should be available to another 10 million people within the next month, about 90 percent of current 5G users.

Services known as mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs), which piggyback on the wireless networks of traditional providers and resell their data service in a rebranded form, will presumably work with C-band.

I’ve confirmed that Comcast’s Xfinity Mobile, a major MVNO that uses Verizon’s network, supports C-band. On the AT&T side, MVNOs will initially roll out C-band on iPhones but not Android phones, a spokesman told me. But MVNOs will still be hampered by AT&T’s limited C-band availability.

Hello, Home Broadband

C-band is relevant not only to phone and tablet users but also to those who want high-speed home broadband service and are looking for alternatives to the traditional providers such as Comcast Xfinity, Charter Communications, and Lumen Technologies (formerly CenturyLink).

As with its 5G phone service, T-Mobile has had an edge in the 5G-based home broadband space (see “T-Mobile Offers Unlimited 5G Home Broadband Service,” 14 April 2021) with its 5G Home Internet. The service is broadly available within the carrier’s mid-band footprint—though not every home address therein qualifies—and provides download speeds similar to what the carrier’s phone customers see.

AT&T doesn’t offer 5G home broadband but does provide a business-focused 5G broadband option.

Verizon’s 5G Home service competes with T-Mobile’s 5G Home Internet but was at a big disadvantage until recently. That’s because it relied on the carrier’s high-band service, which is available only in limited parts of about 80 US cities. Also problematic is the fact that high-band service functions better outdoors than indoors and is easily foiled by physical obstructions like light poles and tree leaves, making it the brunt of jokes.

Verizon 5G home modem

Verizon is now expanding 5G Home support to C-band, which will dramatically expand its reach and potentially improve the service’s reliability since the mid-band signal should work indoors as well as outdoors. I’m hoping to try out 5G Home and may have more to say about it later.

The T-Mobile and Verizon 5G home broadband offerings work basically in the same way—they offer a modem-like gadget that plugs into power, taps into 5G airwaves, and connects the cellular Internet connection to high-speed Wi-Fi for laptops, phones, and other devices in a home.

Inching into the Future

Much has been made—at least by the industry—of 5G’s potential to remake society by enabling gee-whiz technologies such as autonomous vehicles, remotely controlled medical procedures, vast sensor networks, and much-talked-about metaverse (see “Understanding 5G, and Why It’s the Future (Not Present) for Mobile Communications,” 11 November 2020). It remains to be seen how much of this will come to pass, but the addition of C-band support by AT&T and Verizon goes a long way toward providing speedy, widely available 5G to more iPhone and iPad users.

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Comments About AT&T and Verizon Debut Faster, More Widely Available 5G Service

Notable Replies

  1. The FCC’s authorization should have been overruled by the FAA to ban 5G transmissions within a 10km radius around all military and commercial airports. The cell carriers don’t care about safety, just money.

  2. Haven’t 40 countries been able to implement 5G successfully?
    We should be able to respond more quickly and safely to technology than most other countries - it provides a competitive advantage.

    David

  3. Regarding the FAA and FCC disagreement over this new 5G rollout near airports, Jason Snell linked to a very good explanation from James Fallows, also discussing the differences between Europe and Australia and now Verizon and AT&T in the US.

  4. Doug - super article

    Thank you.
    David

  5. In tech people have tended to focus rather much on the network side of this issue. If you guys are interested in hearing a pilot’s perspective on this, I can recommend Patrick Smith’s take. He’s a life long airline pilot for one of the big US three, piloting 757/767 based out of BOS, and has been blogging for years (since the release of his first book I guess).

  6. From what I’ve read, in the EU their 5G is at a much lower power level than what US cell companies use. Perhaps if the FCC ordered the power to be reduced to the levels in the EU, that might be sufficient safety-wise; but as long as the cell companies insist on their much higher power, then a 10 Km safety buffer zone should be required.

  7. Yes, there appear to be significant differences in the bands, power levels, and even antenna design between countries. From the link posted above, this pic provides an interesting comparison just between France and the US.

    Note also that buffer zones around airports, as mandated in France, is now what the carriers and the FAA have essentially agreed to. This will not last forever, but it does give the FAA more time to certify equipment and determine which altimeters will need to be replaced or modified. There undoubtedly will be some required modifications. The good news is that the bulk of aircraft (by pax volume) in the US have already been cleared, with some not getting a green light until last week though, hence some of the drama.

    Saving grace perhaps is also that radio altimeters usually start giving highly accurate reads around 2500’ AGL (at high altitudes pilots [and their systems] rely on barometric readings to determine altitudes) so the buffer zone required to ensure absolutely no interference is by nature limited.

  8. Yes, there appear to be significant differences in the bands, power levels, and even antenna design between countries.

    From the IEEE article linked in the article I listed above:

    Currently, Ireland, Denmark, and Finland have operating 5G networks with midband signals that are more powerful than approved in the United States, with no effect on altimeters.

    And I believe that Australia has the same band spread as used by VZW and ATT in the US. That said, it’s probably better to be careful until you’re 100% sure it will not be a problem, so the current move by VZW and ATT to hold off near the 50 airports is probably smart.

  9. The whole reason for the debate is that the FAA is more interested in safety than anything else…and if they haven’t proved it’s fine then they assume it’s not fine. We used to have the same thought pattern back when I was in the nuclear submarine biz. Back then…there were things that were proven safe and everything else was considered unsafe…this is opposite the more normal way of thinking in that assume it is safe unless it’s proven not to be.

    The FCC has different interests…they’re interested in faster communications and supporting the spectrum usage that companies paid for.

    Nothing wrong with either approach…they’re just different.

    However…with the number of countries that are using 5G and the absence of planes falling out of the sky seems to be a point in favor of the tech being safe…but the FAA still has to verify it. That’s all fine and dandy…but the spectrum was auctioned off months or years ago…one would think the FAA would have spent the intervening time answering the question for themselves rather than waiting until essentially the last minute and then demanding concessions from the phone companies.

    The phone companies have given them another 6 months…and if the FAA is still sitting on their hands after that then it seems like an FAA problem to me.

    I’m happy for safety…but like a lot of other issues these days a little common sense might go a long way.

  10. These inter-agency conflicts probably happen more often than you’d think. The EPA and DOT’s gas can regulations directly contradict each other, which is why a store will have plastic cans with safety nozzles (EPA regs) and metal cans with simply nozzles or just a pour spout (DOT regulation).

  11. A few linked articles, for those interested in details regarding what’s going on:

    1. AT&T, Verizon pause 5G rollout near U.S airports to avoid flight disruptions
    2. Japan solves 5G airliner conundrum: Keep mobe masts 200m from airport approach paths. That’s it… (And maintain a guard band.) US airliners melt down as rest of world moves on
    3. Part of the problem causing problems with 5G vs aviation related bands is that devices commonly send signals outside of their designated band. Equally, receivers may pick up signals outside of their designated band. This can be a device hardware problem as well as an antenna problem. Until AT&T and Verizon recently paused their 5G rollout around airports, this was going on:
      5G goes live in the US and sparks international chaos: British Airways and Cathay Pacific become latest carriers scrambling to change transatlantic flights over safety fears around airports as AT&T and Verizon activate their networks at 90%
  12. Verizon sent me a Samsung phone with its mid-band service on it, and I am getting consistently good speeds.

    I’m not seeing anything approaching the 1 gigabit per second the carrier is claiming under peak conditions, and I never cracked 400 megabits today, but consistent downloads in the 350 megabit range are not too shabby.

    This closely aligns with the speeds I have recently seen when using T-Mobile’s mid-band data service.

    Note: I conducted my C-band testing indoors, within my home office in St. Paul’s urban core, but away from any of Verizon’s high-band/mmWave hotspots.

    Not surprisingly, upload speeds suck (but, for context, they’re much better than the ones I get with my Comcast Xfinity wired broadband).

  13. Really? Try the 250 kbps (note the “k”) I’m stuck with given the DSL I was limited to, until fixed wireless brought me all the way up to 6Mbps. This 5G stuff is looking like a gift from heaven, given the lack of cable in my (suburban) area… The download speeds you’re showing are about 20x what I get.

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