Taking a closer look at 5G mmWave deployment strategies

Cost, spectrum assets and overall 5G strategy are three factors that contribute to how operators are building their 5G networks.

U.S. Wireless operators Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T own millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum licenses and have deployed 5G using mmWave spectrum in some U.S. markets. But just because these operators are using high-band mmWave spectrum for 5G doesn’t mean that their deployment strategies are the same. Aurora Insight examined data that it collected from the Dallas market on the mmWave deployments of Verizon and T-Mobile and discovered that the two operators’ deployment strategies are very different.

What is mmWave?

mmWave spectrum is spectrum that is in the 24 GHz band and higher. The benefit of deploying 5G in mmWave spectrum is that if the signal is unencumbered users can get connection speeds from 1 Gbps to 3 Gbps or higher.

However, mmWave spectrum does have limitations. For instance, mmWave signals can’t travel very far. In fact, in some cases the signal will travel less than a mile depending on the transmitter power and antenna gain. In addition, mmWave signals are susceptible to signal attenuation from things like trees, buildings and even glass.

Verizon is a big proponent of mmWave spectrum for 5G. The operator has deployed its mmWave 5G service, which it calls 5G Ultra Wideband, in about 35 cities. Verizon has also revealed that it plans to expand 5G Ultra Wideband’s reach to about 60 cities by year-end.

AT&T has deployed its millimeter wave (mmWave) 5G service, which it calls 5G Plus, in parts of 35 cities. And T-Mobile offers 5G service over mmWave spectrum in just six cities.

It’s important to note that Verizon has said that its mmWave-based Ultra Wideband service is fundamental to the company’s 5G strategy. The operator also plans to deploy low-band 5G using its existing LTE spectrum coupled with dynamic spectrum sharing technology later this year to complement its mmWave-based 5G offering but it is investing heavily in the mmWave-based Ultra Wideband service.

T-Mobile, by contrast, has already deployed nationwide 5G service using low-band 600 MHz spectrum and is beginning to deploy 5G in Sprint’s 2.5 GHz mid-band spectrum. T-Mobile closed on its acquisition of Sprint on April 1 and as part of that deal it will receive Sprint’s 2.5 GHz spectrum licenses. Sprint holds nearly 80% of the licenses in the 2.5 GHz spectrum band, which equates to about 100 MHz of spectrum in the top 100 markets.

During a recent Wells Fargo 5G Forum, Neville Ray, president of technology at T-Mobile, said that the company is still evaluating its options when it comes to deploying 5G in the mmWave. He also indicated that the company might use that spectrum for backhaul as well as providing 5G service.

Deployment differences in Dallas

Aurora Insight used its proprietary network of sensors to measure radio frequency spectrum and determine mmWave coverage in the Dallas area in March 2020. We specifically looked at the 5G mmWave deployments of T-Mobile and Verizon. Our technology extracted detailed information at the cell site level and identified weak spots in the network.

Here are some of our findings from the Dallas market:

  • T-Mobile has deployed 41 transmitters and serves approximately 302 people per transmitter.
  • Verizon has deployed 76 transmitters and serves approximately 369 people per transmitter.
T-Mobile mmWave transmitters Dallas
The magenta-colored dots above represent T-Mobile transmitters that Aurora Insight detected in the Dallas area
Verizon mmWave transmitters Dallas
The red dots above represent Verizon's 5G transmitters that Aurora Insight has detected in the Dallas area

Verizon is able to serve more potential customers with its transmitters because it has deployed those transmitters in the more densely populated areas, particularly in North Dallas. T-Mobile, by contrast, has fewer transmitters in the North Dallas area. It is also important to note that T-Mobile offers low-band 5G service in Dallas using its 600 MHz spectrum.  However, this 5G service doesn’t deliver the high speeds that mmWave 5G service does.  Verizon, meanwhile, only offers the mmWave 5G service in Dallas.

Why is there such a disparity in mmWave deployments?

One potential reason there is such a difference between Verizon’s 5G mmWave deployment and T-Mobile’s mmWave deployment in Dallas is because Verizon is using new infrastructure to support its 5G deployment while T-Mobile is using existing infrastructure for its 5G transmitters.

Verizon mmWave transmitter
This is a Verizon mmWave transmitter in Dallas
T-Mobile mmWave macro cell
This is a T-Mobile mmWave transmitter in Dallas

T-Mobile is in the midst of integrating its network with the Sprint network and as part of that process it intends to reduce the number of towers it currently is using.

T-Mobile’s Ray told investors at the Wells Fargo conference that with the acquisition of Sprint, T-Mobile currently has leases on about 110,000 towers and he would like to reduce that number to 75,000 or 80,000 and then T-Mobile will likely add between 5,000 and 10,000 new towers and cell sites to give the company a total of 85,000 sites when the integration is complete.

Ray added that currently the company is just adding new radios to existing sites but also noted that the process of collapsing the two operator’s portfolios of tower and cell sites into one portfolio is a complex and time-consuming task that will take several months to accomplish.

Small Cells

Interestingly, Ray also said that he doesn’t anticipate deploying a lot of 5G small cells in T-Mobile’s network because he believes that 5G macro network using the 2.5 GHz spectrum will provide enough coverage and capacity.

This philosophy differs from Verizon, which is currently trialing different types of technologies to help boost its 5G mmWave signal. For example, the company recently revealed that it is testing low-power repeaters from Pivotal Commware and strategically placing them as a way to enhance and boost the company’s mmWave 5G signals and coverage.

5G networks will differ dramatically

Our analysis of Verizon and T-Mobile’s mmWave deployments in Dallas are just one example of how differently operators are approaching their 5G network strategies. T-Mobile’s deployment of mmWave 5G using existing infrastructure is currently resulting in fewer transmitters. It also means that T-Mobile is serving fewer customers in the Dallas area. By contrast, Verizon with its new infrastructure has deployed more transmitters and is able to service more customers than T-Mobile.

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