After rushing to become the first carrier to launch commercial 5G services anywhere in the world, top U.S. cellular company Verizon has spent two years struggling to spread 5G network hardware across the large American land mass, imperiling the next-generation technology’s domestic prospects. Today, Verizon is finally ready to launch its national 5G network — 5G Nationwide — but there’s an important caveat: Users might not experience better than 4G-level performance.
While the ideal 5G network would have towers dedicated solely to serving devices on the latest and fastest cellular standard, Verizon bet on a new 5G technology, millimeter wave small cells, that quickly ran into trouble thanks to its short broadcasting range and installation-related regulatory approvals. The carrier’s prior 5G Ultra Wideband network was previously found in parts of over 30 cities — with heavy emphasis on “parts,” as 5G connectivity is in some cases available only outside at a handful of specific city blocks, and generally not even inside buildings located there. Users lucky enough to connect to Verizon’s awkwardly abbreviated 5G UWB towers may experience transformative-class 4Gbps peak speeds, but might lose signal by walking steps away or going indoors. During Apple’s “Hi, Speed” iPhone 12 event today, Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg said that 5G UWB has expanded to 19 additional cities, and will be available in 60 cities by year’s end.
By contrast, 5G Nationwide provides a 5G coverage blanket for over 200 million potential customers that can be accessed indoors and outdoors — enough to keep a “5G” logo on a phone’s screen — but without access to the high speeds millimeter wave 5G enables. That’s largely because Verizon is splitting some of its older 4G towers into hybrid 4G-5G radio systems using a technology called dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS), allocating shifting parts of each tower’s capacity to 4G and 5G devices based on current demand. Set up properly, DSS might enable 200 4G devices to each retain 10Mbps download speeds while 50 5G devices each enjoy 40Mbps download speeds, but in reality, the 5G devices might not have as generous an allotment. Rather than 400% performance, 5G devices might only see a 30% uptick, and 4G devices could see their peaks unnecessarily capped.
Verizon’s launch parallels AT&T’s, which began with the debut of “5G+” millimeter wave service to businesses, and in late July expanded to a “5G nationwide” service using DSS. Though spotty and far smaller than its 4G footprint, AT&T’s 5G coverage map enabled it to claim availability for 205 million potential customers across 395 coverage markets. Rival T-Mobile, by comparison, has some low and mid band towers dedicated fully to 5G, delivering service that ranges from unimpressively 4G-like to several times faster, depending on the specific market. T-Mobile has claimed that it will continue to leverage technology improvements to boost its low and mid band 5G performance.
Verizon’s launch of 5G Nationwide coincides with Apple’s announcement of the iPhone 12 family, which universally includes low and mid band 5G support, as well as high band support on U.S. models. Numerous Android phones were previously available with varying types of 5G support, collectively representing 13.5% of the total smartphone sales in the United States in a recent study.