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The 5G network in the US is the slowest in the world, although the C band will make it faster

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The 5G network in the United States is among the slowest in the world that have been commercially launched in the last 20 months, with an average download speed between 48 and 58 megabit per second by the three national operators, according to the latest report January Opensignal. This speed is well below the goal proclaimed by the operators of reaching 100 megabits per second. When the 280 megahertz of the so-called C-band now auctioned is available and operational, the situation will change radically, because operators will have enough spectrum in the precious middle band and plan to invest tens of billions of dollars in 5G infrastructure in the coming years.

On January 15, the first phase of the auction of 280 megahertz of a portion of the C band, located between 3.7 and 3.98 megahertz, was concluded, in which the record figure of 80.900 million dollars was reached after 97 Bids made since the beginning of December 8. To this amount, about $ 13.5 billion will have to be added to compensate satellite companies, which now properly license this portion of the spectrum, and cover the cost of relocating them, which must be paid by the operators who have obtained the license.

On February 8, the second phase began, assigning the auctioned frequencies,  of the so-called Auction 107 of the FCC, the telecommunications regulatory body in the United States. The president of the FCC and who will be in charge of concluding the auction is now Jessica Rosenworcel, who replaces the previous president, Ajit Pai, who resigned when the new president of the United States, Joe Biden, entered.

The scarcity of medium bands for 5G, around 3.5 GHz, is what makes the United States operators offer a download speed in the vicinity of 50 Mbit / s, among the lowest in the world

As Rosenworcel points out, the auction has exceeded initial expectations (the anticipated number has doubled) and “we will now strive to rapidly commercialize this critical piece of the mid-band spectrum, to help US consumers enter the next generation of wireless services ”.

In this allocation phase, the operators that have obtained any of the 5,684 blocks of spectrum in which the 280 megahertz have been distributed will have the option of bidding for the license of the specific frequencies they want. Non-participants will be assigned contiguous frequencies that correspond to the generic blocks they have bid for, which should allow for efficient deployment of high-capacity, low-latency services. In Spain, the reassignment process of 3.5 GHz 5G licenses has not yet been carried out, despite the time that has elapsed; only Vodafone has contiguous spectrum, which puts Telefónica and Orange at a disadvantage.

The FCC will not announce the auction results until the allocation phase is complete, but Raymond James’ financial analysts estimate that Verizon will have bid for about $ 30 billion, AT&T for about $ 20 billion, Comcast / Charter for about $ 15 billion, T -Mobile for 11,000 million and Dish Network for 2,000 million, among national operators.

Complaints about interference with aircraft radars

The discussion on the use of the C band for 5G services will not, however, be concluded with the allocation of the auctioned frequencies. Apart from the fact that the satellite companies that now use the auctioned portion of the spectrum will have to be relocated and compensated (among them the European Intelsat and SES that distribute TV and radio signals in the United States), many associations of aviation and Pilots and the Pentagon have already raised the cry, arguing that 5G signals using the auctioned C-band could interfere with the maneuvers of the country’s planes.

In a long Defense News article shortly after the auction started, more than a dozen commercial aviation groups pointed out that the use of the C-band could lead to “catastrophic failures” on planes and potential “multiple deaths,” urging the FCC to paralyze her and study the subject more carefully. The Ministry of Defense is also very concerned about the situation.

A 231-page report from October 7 by RTCA,  an organization that works with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) to develop safe standards in aviation, already warned that 5G signals could interfere with the reading of the short-range radar altimeters of all planes and helicopters . And not only in the auctioned portion of the C-band but also 5G spurious emissions could interfere in the protected 4.2 to 4.4 GHz band, in the event that mitigation measures were not taken.

AT&T and Verizon bid very hard in the C-band auction, because they don’t have many licenses in the middle band of the spectrum, while T-Mobile has some thanks to its merger with Sprint

In any case, Ajit Pai, the former president of the FCC, ignored the warnings and accelerated the process of holding the auction, starting it a few days before the end of Trump’s presidency and resigning from his position with the arrival of the new president. The new president, Jessica Rosenworcel, will have to end this controversial auction and deal with the problem of interference, although it is true that she was part of the five commissioners that the FCC consists of, including the presidency, so the matter does not come to her again. Ajit Pai already made a very controversial decision a year ago with the acceptance of the merger of T-Mobile and Sprint.

The satellite companies SES and Intelsat have sent a document to the FCC  in which they recall that the first phase of Accelerated relocation of 120 MHz of spectrum will be made on December 5 and the second of 300 MHz on December 5, 2023. They trust that the antennas will have been installed on time and the replacement satellites will be sent so that services can continue without interruption of radio and television to the 120 million households that are now lent through the C band.

The estimated cost of these changes is 3,300 million dollars, which will be paid proportionally by the operators that have obtained the licenses together with another 10,000 million dollars as compensation to the satellite companies for assigning the license that they had legally granted and that they wanted to auction. themselves. With this operation, the United States Treasury will receive the 80.9 billion dollars from the auction.

Midband shortage in the United States

The FCC looked at this portion of the C-band already occupied by satellite signals because it had very few options to have a relatively wide spectrum band in the coveted mid-band, around 3.5 GHz. This band It is so popular for 5G signals because it offers the best combination of range and transmission speed of the wireless signal.

This is the reason why all countries have opted for 3.5 GHz in preference to 5G, except the United States because it did not have enough spectrum in this middle band. The signals with the low band, from 600 to 800 MHz, achieve much greater coverage but at a low speed, similar to 4G that work at the same frequency. And those above 6 GHz or millimeter allow much higher speeds but with very low coverage.

At the moment, 5G millimeter signals have only been launched so far in the United States, precisely because of its shortage of medium bands. This shortage is what has made the average speed offered by 5G signals from T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T among the lowest of commercial networks in service, according to last month’s report by OpenSignal, a British consulting firm. Verizon, as the graph below indicates, achieves 47.4 Mbit / s download, AT&T 53.8 Mbit / s and T -Mobile 58.1 Mbit / s. The availability of the 5G signal is 9.5% for Verizon, 18.8% for AT&T and 30.1% for T-Mobile. And the upload speed of the signal is between 8 and 14 megabits per second.


Measurements carried out by the same OpenSignal between last September and November already revealed that the United States was at the bottom of the transmission speed of 5G signals. In OpenSignal’s June report last year, Verizon was at the fore, with an impressive 495 Mbit / s speed, a far cry from AT & T’s 60.8 Mbit / s, T- 49.2 Mbit / s. Mobile or Sprint’s 49.5, still in service at that time, because their networks had not yet merged with those of T-Mobile.

As Ian Fogg, the analyst responsible for the Opensignal study, explains, “Verizon’s measurement for June was based primarily on the operator’s millimeter network, although the 5G network coverage was only 0.4%.” Now, in the measurement of the January report, the speed has been weighted with the coverage of each frequency band of the 5G network of each operator. The problem for United States operators is that they have very restricted access to the medium band, while the rest of the countries use the 3.5 GHz band fundamentally, thus achieving speeds five to six times higher than 4G , with an average of 300 Mbit / s, Fogg specifies, as seen in the following graph.


Consulting firm Ookla has made 5G “speed scores” that suggest higher download speeds than OpenSignal. The Ookla scores, however, do not translate directly into megabits per second because they measure upload and download speed and attribute 90% of the value to the download and 10% of the upload of the 5G signal. According to Ookla, AT&T obtained the best score last quarter with 75.59 points, T-Mobile second with 70.98 and Verizon with 67.07. On his blog, Ookla justifies his methodology.

In any case, the average 5G download speeds in the United States are very low, since they mostly use the low bands of 600, 700 and 850 MHz and the coverage of millimeter waves, due to their limited range, is negligible at the level of country. When the 5G specification was initially conceived by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), it was said that the average download speed of 5G signals, in real conditions, would be 100 Mbit / s, when now the world average is approximately 300 Mbit / s and in the United States about 50 Mbit / s.

In the graph below it can be seen that T-Mobile has many licenses to use in 5G signals, both in the low band of the 600 and 850 MHz spectrum and in the middle band of 3.55 to 3.65 GHz or CBRS, thanks to its merger with Sprint and the combination of the licenses of both operators that now act together. AT&T has far fewer midband licenses than T-Mobile, and Verizon is even worse off.


For this reason, in the auction of the 280 megahertz of the C band, AT&T and Verizon bid large sums to keep a very substantial part of the licenses, but since T-Mobile also wanted but did not need it so much, the total amount of the auction exceeded initial expectations of $ 40-50 billion and exceeded $ 80 billion. A very high amount, but if you calculate the price per megahertz of spectrum and per population covered, it comes out for just under a dollar, which is relatively little. The CBRS band auction, subject to very strict emission limits, was proportionally more expensive, according to analysts at New Street Research.

However, the large national operators will have to borrow 20 to 30 billion dollars each to obtain the band C licenses now requested and they will have to wait until the end of the year for some of them to be operational and another portion at the end of 2023, if all satellite and antenna relocation works according to schedule.

Meanwhile, each of the three large national operators will have to continue offering 5G signals at a very reduced average speed throughout the country, mostly with low bands, although T-Mobile already has a lot of spectrum in the middle band and will be able to offer much higher speed in urban areas, because it will pay off for you to invest with proportionally less infrastructure. Meanwhile, at the other extreme, Verizon will have to rely on millimeter waves at speeds close to gigabit per second, but it will only be acceptable in the cores of very densely populated areas.

According to the ETNO report “The State of Digital Communications” presented two weeks ago the number of European citizens covered with at least one 5G network was 24.4% in the third quarter of last year, while the report ensures that in the United States 76% of the population is covered with 5G and in Korea in the South the proportion is 93%.

What the ETNO report does not say is that the average download speed achieved in the United States with 5G networks is about 50 megabit per second, almost double that of 4G, according to Opensignal, while in the The rest of the countries in the world that have 5G, their speed is typically five to six times faster than 4G. And the fact is that 5G only makes sense when different frequency bands can be used and intelligently used to give the most appropriate speed and coverage in each place, according to your needs. But this is the reason for another article