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5G over low frequency spectrum seems to be a waste of time

T-Mobile was able to claim the first US 5G network thanks to its 600 MHz spectrum, but it immediately started managing-down expectations, so what was the point?

Multiple reports are claiming TMUS has been telling its excited punters that the speed increase with 5G will be, on average, around 20%. That’s a pretty major anti-climax after all the hype suggesting 5G would be ten times faster and all that. As ever with the tendency of US operator marketing departments to massively over-promise, they have to confront the facts on the ground sooner or later.

Having said all that it’s important to stress that early tests of the TMUS 5G network have, at times, yielded speed increases far greater than that average (which also implies there are other times there will be no increase at all, or even a decrease). PC Mag has done a good job of initial testing and found results vary according to the expected factors such as distance from the cell and time of day.

PC Mag concludes that, while TMUS’s 5G does represent an upgrade over its 4G service, the improvement is neither so great nor consistent enough to get too excited about. Elsewhere VentureBeat, Cnet, and Slashgear offer similarly nuanced reports that all agree there’s a limited amount to get excited about at this stage.

Meanwhile the Houston Chronicle was so underwhelmed it had a bit of a moan to TMUS and got the following statement in response. “In some places, 600 MHz 5G will be a lot faster than LTE. In others, customers won’t see as much difference. On average, customers with a 600 MHz 5G phone should see a 20 percent download speed boost on top of what T-Mobile’s LTE network delivers, and with the New T-Mobile they can expect that to get exponentially faster over time, just like we saw when 4G was first introduced.”

That’s all fair enough but it still feels like a pretty major climb-down from all the utopian noise we’ve been getting the US about 5G. TMUS even had the nerve to attack its competitors for over-hyping 5G earlier this week, only to then release the above statement. While there is some special sauce in 5G NR, the main bandwidth improvements are derived from simply using the fatter pipes available at higher frequencies.

The reason there’s all this spectrum available at higher bands is that it’s pretty rubbish for telecommunications. It has short range and poor propagation characteristics. So while the use of 600 MHz technically enables nationwide 5G, the kind of 5G that has been promised will only arrive once operators have added a zillion small cells to transmit higher frequencies and that won’t happen for a while.

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13 comments

  1. Avatar Bryan Wills 06/12/2019 @ 6:41 pm

    Thanks for sharing – and delighted by your writing, as always!
    I tend to disagree about the “waste of time” title, though. 20% is an increase that does impact customer experience. Plus it should lead to a better experience when travelling from areas with higher 5G speeds (higher frequencies) into those with lower 5G speeds.

  2. Avatar Aaron Gooch 07/12/2019 @ 4:27 am

    I been saying this 5ge clone is nothing more than 4g lte with massive mimo. But people disagree thank you for actually posting facts of lower spectrum speeds. TMobile is the only ones falsely advised 4g as 5g

    • Avatar changer 09/12/2019 @ 4:24 am

      Technically I totally dislike the concept that standard set claim to be 5G, because it is nothing new, just a bigger 4G. or to he honest, this is a bigger but not smarter.
      What standard claim to be 5G is just mostly focus on radio access layer, but still much more concern on fronthaul, backhaul, transport, aggregation, core blablabla needed to be built, deployed …

      For me, I think we need new network model using natural common layer as a carrier than add more smart coding to send more context over those common carriers.

  3. Avatar K Hoffman 07/12/2019 @ 6:00 am

    This reminds me of the Megapixle race in photography. Marketing people all trained the average media and consumer to look at only Mega Pixles. While ignoring Dynamic range and other factors.
    INFORMED users know that 5G is about more than the ability to download a library of videos while crossing the street.
    5G is about more. The key feature will be latency that will allow more real time AI assisted solutions to work better. Interactive games too.
    As to what’s the point? The best 5G is the 5G you can use. After over 16 years on Verizon in the Seattle area we changed to T-mobile. Main reason coverage. Verizon coverage is fine in a car on a freeway but get a mile off the freeway or in a building and its nada even a half mile from a tower.
    Now I can reach my daughter in her school. Get Internet at PTA meetings and make calls from my desk at work.
    The fastest service standing next to the tower is not the fastest where I need my phone to work.

  4. Avatar Sebastian Pineda 07/12/2019 @ 10:12 am

    Let’s see when the 5G core is ready to offer the rest of the 5G benefits. With TMUS coverage on the 600MHz that will be a game changer. So I wouldn’t say a waste of time. Rather I would say good planning for what is coming next.

  5. Avatar Brian Keith Eaver 07/12/2019 @ 11:14 am

    You know this is beginning stages right? Low band spectrum step 1, then build it out from there. At least the TMO customers won’t have to be standing next to a tower to receive a signal unlike the other 2 carriers that couldn’t even get their signal to spread out across a stadium.

    I’m pretty underwhelmed with this article..

  6. Avatar Vasileios Stoidis 07/12/2019 @ 5:35 pm

    I totally disagree, since utilizing 600 MHz spectrum for 5G will also allow to reduce the congestion in 4G. 4G is not slow because of the technology (which can easily deliver 200Mbps or more), but because of congestion in crowded areas.

    The more the spectrum that’s available (and 5G increases the spectrum by a lot), the less congestion the users experience and thus, the higher the speeds and the quality of the service.

    So even if 5G behaves similarly with 4G at 600 MHz, this will help the overall available capacity and will increase the speeds for all.

  7. Avatar Cary Becker 08/12/2019 @ 2:21 am

    It will be a very long time before blowing your info in every direction hoping for a reciever can beat a clean glass and light connection. Wireless is subject to terrestrial interference, and nothing will change that.

  8. Avatar Reasonable Tech Guy 08/12/2019 @ 3:24 am

    While it’s ok to be let down by the actual results, it’s extremely short sighted to completely dismiss low band 5G as a hoax or a marketing ploy. 5G in itself is more of a theoretical standard than a concrete one. The initial connection at the hub is indeed in line with the 5G standard but none of that matters until it meets the people. mmWave is more of a marketing ploy because although it is very fast, it covers an area of a city block with pure line of sight. Anything including wind can affect your signal. It can not even penetrate glass in it’s current state so it’s not a viable solution for Nationwide deployment. The goal in the new standard is reach as many people while providing an upgrade in quality of connection. In my opinion, this small upgrade brings a stronger and faster connection to more people and leaves the door open to introduce midband 5G and get closer to the visions of connectivity that are being advertised. It’s not about defending brands or tearing down other companies. It’s about honoring the true goal of technological advancement which is improving the lives of the masses.

  9. Avatar Shan Liu 08/12/2019 @ 5:48 am

    If it’s only a 20% increase then upgrading to a 5G ready phone is surly a waste of money at this time. I did see many speed tests of over 1000mb transfer speed both in Taiwan and China on youtube, surly that is more than 20% increase.

  10. Scott Bicheno Scott Bicheno 09/12/2019 @ 8:57 am

    Thank you all for your excellent comments. I have no doubt 5G will improve but the fact remains that the reality is falling far short of the hype right now.

  11. Avatar Professor Peter Curwen 11/12/2019 @ 5:10 pm

    What I think a number of people are saying is (1) sheer speed is only one element of the consumer experience but there is also the issue of coverage and, less importantly, latency (2) neither the 600 MHz not mmWave bands are much use if treated in isolation. Roughly speaking, technology is moving in a 10 year cycle (e.g. 3G from 2000 to 2010, LTE from 2010 to 2020) so 5G needs to be left to develop for a few years before it can be properly assessed. LTE needed carrier aggregation before it provided real progress and, equally, 5G needs a combination of low, mid-range and high bands to realise its potential. Whether operators outside the USA will ever make any money from it is another question.

    • Scott Bicheno Scott Bicheno 11/12/2019 @ 5:13 pm

      Agreed. We’ll be sure to write a follow-up in a few years.

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