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Sub-6 GHz vs mmWave – Which 5G is the best in U.S.

February 13, 2020 / Oshine Tripura
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  • While 5G is taking the market by storm, it is important to understand every aspect of this new technology.

  • The spectrum is one thing that set Sub-6 GHz and mmWave apart.

  • Qualcomm President, Cristiano Amon, says that millimeter wave (mmWave) without a doubt will be one of the key spectrums used in 5G.


The buzz surrounding 5G and its use of technology is proving more than just noise. 5G has been using technology in more a sophisticated fashion by bringing in more technical phrases to explain its coverage and speed. Some of these phrases and terminology you must know and understand if you are thinking about making the move to 5G.
 

While 5G is becoming a technical standard, it’s not easy to translate these terms and specifications into what they mean for everyday experience. Let’s break down the technical aspect for and understand what makes it important to the future of our connected lives and how different variations of 5G can lead to vastly different experiences for end users.
 

Strictly speaking, mmWave refers to radio frequency spectrum above 24 GHz, but practically speaking and in the context of 5G, 6 GHz can be seen as the dividing line for mmWave: spectrum above 6 GHz is mmWave, while spectrum below 6 GHz is not mmWave.
 

The spectrum band


Spectrum is the range of electromagnetic radio frequencies used to transmit sound and data through the air. When consumers use their mobiles, their devices are not transmitting haphazardly over the entire spectrum of radio communications. Rather, they are connected over specific frequency bands. These bands are like invisible channels or pipes through which information is delivered. Generally speaking, the bigger the pipe, the greater the capacity and the more information that can be carried.
 

In terms of spectrum and the 5G experience, 6 GHz is a tipping point, with potentially very different 5G results at higher frequencies compared to lower frequencies. For instance, a user’s 5G experience with mmWave spectrum (which is above 6 GHz) could be markedly different than those on sub-6 GHz spectrum because propagation can vary significantly between low and high frequencies. Simply put, signal propagation is the movement of radio waves as they travel back and forth between networks as well as mobile devices.
 

Lower frequency spectrum, including sub-6 GHz, can travel farther and penetrate solid objects like buildings better than a higher frequency spectrum such as mmWave. In fact, even a user’s hand has been shown to block mmWave signals (though device makers are taking steps to mitigate this). In short, mmWave spectrum doesn’t offer the broad coverage that sub-6 GHz spectrum supports. With mmWave spectrum’s sensitivity to external factors and its smaller coverage areas, the benefits of mmWave (ultra-fast data speeds, for instance) will likely be felt the most in locations where limited coverage isn’t a major concern, such as pockets of densely populated urban areas or in crowded indoor locations like sporting events, airports, or concerts.
 

Learn more: 5G STRATEGIES OF T-MOBILE US, SPRINT HINGE ON MERGER
 

While both sub-6 GHz and mmWave spectrum should, in theory, provide much faster speeds compared to 4G LTE, mmWave technology offers the potential to deliver lightning-fast speeds theoretically as high as 5.0 Gbps or faster, compared to 100 to 200 Mbps for existing 4G LTE services. What makes mmWave potentially so fast? Returning to the pipe analogy, spectrum is crowded at the lower, sub-6 GHz frequency bands most often used for cellular communications. At higher mmWave frequencies, in contrast, there’s more bandwidth available. To continue the analogy, at lower frequencies there is only room for smaller pipes, while at higher frequencies like mmWave, there’s more real estate and the chance to utilize bigger pipes for carrying cellular information. In short, mmWave spectrum allows for large bandwidth, which paves the way for potentially faster speeds. Sub-6 GHz spectrum, meanwhile, has limited bandwidth and therefore its speeds could potentially be slower than possible with mmWave spectrum.
 

What does 5G look like for the U.S.


Given the coverage and performance implications for different types of spectrum, mobile operators must manage a delicate tradeoff based on what they hope to provide to users and the spectrum they have available. The tradeoff becomes a question of offering potentially slower speeds but broader coverage with sub-6 GHz spectrum or providing faster speeds but smaller coverage areas with mmWave spectrum. In its recent 5G First look testing in three major US cities (Atlanta, Chicago, and Dallas), it was found that Sprint was the only carrier using sub-6 GHz spectrum. AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon, on the other hand, each used mmWave, and the maximum download speeds we found from different carriers utilizing different spectrum provided compelling context for the real-world potential of mmWave.
 

Qualcomm President, Cristiano Amon, says that millimeter wave (mmWave) without a doubt will be one of the key spectrums used in 5G.

“Real 5G is really the combination of sub 6 and millimeter wave, and that’s going to happen on a global scale. We made the prediction that by 2021, all leading economies will have millimeter wave deployed, and as you think of the use cases beyond smartphones, millimeter wave is required.”

-Cristiano Amon, Qualcomm President


Qualcomm President made this statement to the audience at the opening of the Snapdragon Summit in December, 2019.


Verizon appreciates Qualcomm’s support for mmWave, which is at the foundation of its 5G service launches.
 

“There’s a lot of misconceptions about 5G coverage,” he added, noting that 5G coverage is now seen and reported as just a small percentage of LTE coverage, which is normal because it’s early. As 4G networks matured, that drove operators worldwide to densify their networks and for the past couple of years, that was done for capacity, not coverage. As 5G is deployed on those networks, “you have a very easy and flexible way to build coverage,” he said.
 

Nicki Palmer, senior vice president of technology and product development at Verizon, said Verizon’s strategy is all about millimeter wave and while that won’t always be the case, “we feel like that’s where the transformative use cases happen.” The sub-6 GHz spectrum is not bad; it just doesn’t have the massive amounts of bandwidth that the mmWave spectrum offers, and Verizon, through acquisitions that included StraightPath in 2017, holds the lion’s share of mmWave in the U.S. right now.
 

And while she said she wasn’t here to bash T-Mobile, which is making hay about its 600 MHz for 5G, Verizon has had 700 MHz spectrum for over 10 years now. So while T-Mobile is using its relatively new low-band spectrum to reach more places and build out coverage, Verizon is building out deeper and deeper with mmWave. It already has seven mmWave devices that it can offer to consumers.
 

Verizon, for example, using mmWave, delivered a maximum download speed of 1.1 Gbps in Chicago. AT&T, another operator with mmWave, registered a maximum download speed of 669.2 Mbps in Dallas. Sprint, in contrast, with sub-6 GHz spectrum, registered its fastest 5G maximum download speed of 213.1 Mbps in Atlanta (with maximum download speeds a little over 200.0 Mbps in both Chicago and Dallas). While Sprint’s speed of 213.1 Mbps is still quite fast, Verizon’s maximum download speed was roughly five times faster while AT&T’s speed was over three time faster.
 

Device support


Samsung’s new Galaxy S20 will be the first real test for 5G networks in the US, one that could help establish the networking standard as the true next-generation technology that companies have spent years hyping it up to be — or it’ll shine a spotlight on the half-baked mess of competing standards, technologies, and strategies that currently makes up the 5G market in the US.
 

Every S20, S20 Plus, and S20 Ultra will support 5G networking right out of the box. (At least, they will in the US. Samsung is reportedly planning to offer both 4G and 5G models internationally.) That means that even if you’re not particularly interested in buying a phone just for 5G, whether you want it or not, it’ll be there on Samsung’s new flagships.

“Samsung is making 5G available to more people more quickly than anyone thought possible.”

- Tae-moon Roh, the new head of Samsung's mobile business


Learn more: Galaxy S20 brings 5G to Samsung customers, whether they want it or not

 

All four major US carriers now offer at least some form of 5G networking (albeit with major differences in coverage, network technology, and speeds). Unlike last year, when Qualcomm offered an optional 5G modem for its flagship Snapdragon 855 processor, the 865 makes it mandatory.
 

Amon and others reiterated that the expectation is that by the end of the first quarter of 2020, there will be smartphones that support both millimeter wave and sub-6 GHz.
 

T-Mobile is one recent example. The phones it launched as part of its 600 MHz 5G deployment support only sub-6 GHz, even though it has millimeter wave spectrum. That’s presumably because it wanted devices this year and the fastest way to get them was to go sub-6 GHz only.
 

The verdict


Whether it’s down to GHz or mmWave, the arrival of 5G brings forth a great deal of possibilities for consumers and enterprises alike. End users should eventually expect a quantum leap in data speeds, reliability, and latency compared to what existing 4G LTE networks currently provide.