In this article, we will look at the real-life performance of mmWave in the United States, reflect on its progress so far across the globe, and discuss what the future holds.
- mmWave received additional spectrum as part of Release 17, in addition to the spectrum already allocated by Rel-15 and WRC-19. 5G connectivity using mmWave substantially improves 5G performance (increasing theoretical speeds to up to 5 Gbps). At the same time, it comes with a challenge because of its limited range, which can be easily blocked or obscured, necessitating a high degree of network densification, which comes with additional Capex.
- After initial enthusiasm, operators’ appetite for the mmWave band spectrum has been lackluster, with only two auctions taking place in 2022. However, we see a renewed interest, which could lead to more spectrum allocations and network launches.
- Due to the limited rollout of mmWave 5G networks, the device ecosystem has lagged behind other 5G spectrum bands. While support for mmWave spectrum bands across smartphones is skewed heavily towards the U.S., an increase in spectrum launches and networks combined with a declining ASP should lead to a growing adoption worldwide.
- Ookla® Q4 2022 data from the U.S. shows mmWave is achieving mind blowing speeds — almost 1.6 Gbps median 5G download speed — 26 times faster than the median 5G speed on low-band, almost seven times faster than the C-band, and four times than mid-band.
- RootMetrics® tested mmWave performance simulating congested network environments and concluded that even in such conditions, mmWave spectrum could achieve four times faster throughput than mid- and low-band spectrum.
mmWave spectrum allocation and commercialization
Oftentimes, consumers complain about 5G speeds, sold on the promise of ultra-fast mobile networks. Such speeds can only be delivered utilizing the mmWave spectrum band. Up until and including 4G LTE, operators have been deploying networks in the sub-6 GHz spectrum. It was only with Release 15 that the telecom standards body 3GPP extended the spectrum ranges available for mobile networks. Frequency bands for 5G New Radio (NR) are separated into two frequency ranges:
- Frequency Range 1 (FR1) refers to sub-6 GHz frequency bands, traditionally used by previous network generations, which have been further extended to cover potential new spectrum offerings from 410 MHz to 7125 MHz.
- Frequency Range 2 (FR2) refers to frequencies above 24 GHz.
Furthermore, in November 2019, delegates of the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-19) identified additional radio frequency bands for IMT-2020 (the name ITU uses for 5G standards). These frequency bands are 24.25-27.5 GHz, 37-43.5 GHz, 45.5-47 GHz, 47.2-48.2, and 66-71 GHz. 3GPP’s recently completed Release 17 has further expanded the mmWave spectrum frequency range from 24.25-52.6 GHz up to 71 GHz, including support for the global 60 GHz unlicensed band.
So far, mmWave spectrum allocation has been lackluster across Europe, following initial enthusiasm in the U.S., Japan, and South Korea. According to Global Mobile Suppliers Association (GSA), 26 countries have licensed mmWave worldwide. In 2022, only two auctions took place in India and Spain in the 26 GHz frequency band. The Indian auction itself was a subject of intense debate and lobbying against its allocation in the 28 GHz band by the satellite providers. The regulator auctioned the 26 GHz band to minimize overlaps and interference issues.
However, the momentum for mmWave spectrum allocations is growing, especially in Europe. While 14 countries in Europe have licensed mmWave so far, more are planning to do so e.g., Hungary, Austria, and the United Kingdom, which should lead to more deployments and create economies of scale that the mmWave device ecosystem currently lacks.
Beyond consumers, mmWave can address the needs of enterprise applications that require higher bandwidth and lower latency, such as factory robots or AGVs. For example, Italian manufacturer Exor International partnered with Intel, TIM, and JMA Wireless to build an end-to-end smart factory in Verona to showcase the benefits that Industry 4.0 brings to manufacturing utilizing sub-6 GHz and 26 GHz spectrum. It is worth noting that several regulators have created an encouraging environment for enterprises to deploy their own dedicated networks by allocating spectrum for vertical use across mid- and high-frequency bands. So far, ten countries have set aside mmWave spectrum for enterprises, including Australia, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Japan, Hong Kong, Finland, Sweden, South Korea, and the U.K. Japanese Fujitsu deployed a private 5G network combining 4.7 GHz SA and 28 GHz.
The growing pains of the mmWave device ecosystem
The South Korean example offers a cautionary tale regarding 5G mmWave readiness.
In 2018, three operators — SK, KT, and LG U+ — spent 620 billion Won ($435 million) on a five-year license for the 28 GHz spectrum. As part of the license conditions, operators had to deploy 15,000 base stations by the end of 2021. Following an audit by the Ministry of Science and IT (MSIT), KT and LGU+ had their licenses revoked, and SK Telecom was reduced by six months. One key challenge operators pointed to was the need for a mature mmWave devices ecosystem in the market.
Looking at the latest GSA data, this is indeed the case. Across the commercially available 5G devices that GSA has identified spectrum support information, most devices (85.7%) support the sub-6GHz band and only 8.9% mmWave spectrum.
However, mmWave device availability differs depending on the geography with smartphone availability heavily skewed to the U.S. For instance, all iPhone 12-14 models in the U.S. support both mmWave and sub–6 GHz 5G connectivity; this was not the case in South Korea. Across Android-based smartphones, the story is similar. The Pixel 6 Pro includes mmWave 5G support only in the U.S., Australia, and Japan. There is also a price difference across devices that offer support for mmWave. For example, Google Pixel 6 is available in two versions in the U.S. — an unlocked version with sub-6 GHz 5G for $599 and another with mmWave 5G for $699. The latter is offered via operators such as Verizon and AT&T. The price difference is likely due to the mmWave requirement for specialized radio hardware and antennas. Yet, on average, the price delta between sub-6 GHz and mmWave smartphones is narrowing down to $10- $20, Counterpoint Research shows.
Furthermore, Counterpoint sees consumer awareness and adoption growing in the U.S. According to its U.S. smartphone users survey, 60% of users checked before purchasing whether a 5G Smartphone has 5G mmWave capability, while 43% of users in the future plan to subscribe to 5G mmWave services and smartphones. Beyond the U.S., Counterpoint sees one billion cumulative 5G mmWave smartphone shipments between 2019 and 2026, with mmWave smartphone penetration reaching 26% by 2026, compared to 13% in 2022.
mmWave supports FWA
Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) is often considered one of the most successful 5G use cases as we recently pointed out. Some operators leverage mmWave to offer FWA services, for example, in April 2022, US Cellular launched 5G Home Internet using mmWave spectrum (28 GHz and 39 GHz) in partnership with Qualcomm and Inseego across ten cities. In Italy, Fastweb collaborated with Qualcomm to commercialize 5G SA mmWave services in March 2022, following a partnership to deliver 5G FWA to 400 cities. Vendors are vying to address this opportunity too. Recently, Mavenir launched an FWA solution that supports massive MIMO and 5G mmWave for 4G, 5G NSA, and 5G SA deployments. This FWA platform has been deployed by several customers, such as 360 Communications, RINA Wireless, Triangle Communications in the U.S., and Quickline in the U.K.
mmWave delivers on the promise of gigabit speeds
The U.S. is a global leader in using mmWave spectrum, with AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon using mmWave to offer mobile service, while US Cellular deploys it for FWA. Speedtest Intelligence® data shows that 5G connectivity using mmWave can reach staggering speeds of up to 1.6 Gbps. Comparing 5G performance across spectrum bands across mobile operators in the U.S. used for 5G services — low-, mid-, C-band, and high-band (mmWave) — it is clear that mmWave delivers superior performance. Our data shows that users on 5G mmWave achieved speeds that are 4.29 times faster than mid-band, 6.86 times faster than C-band, and a staggering 26.1 times faster than a low band.
Due to its high throughput, mmWave is particularly useful for streaming and gaming. For example, at CES 2023, Razer unveiled its new Razer Edge, the first Android handheld gaming tablet on the market. The device can play games locally on the device or stream them remotely via 5G. The Razer Edge 5G became available from Verizon on January 26.
Mmwave also offers the advantage of lower latency — anything over 20 ms will give gamers a headache, according to Qualcomm.
mmWave helps with network congestion too
Speaking at the Citi 2023 Communications, Media & Entertainment conference, Kyle Malady — Verizon’s Executive VP, President of Global Networks & Technology, noted that the operator has deployed over 40,000 mmWave nodes, which support its 5G services in dense, urban environments. He also stated, “And now that millimeter wave technology turns into a tool for RF engineers to use in hotspots that they have and C-Band.”
A RootMetrics study supports this, based on several tests conducted in December 2021 to simulate the performance of the 5G spectrum in a congested environment. While, unsurprisingly, the results showed speeds in congested environments were slower on all bands than when congestion wasn’t present, there was a difference when it came to bands in use: mmWave 5G delivered a median download speed of 231.40 Mbps, which was over four times faster than the speeds recorded on either mid-band or low-band 5G, both of which were below 50 Mbps (44.80 Mbps on mid-band and 49.50 Mbps on low-band). To put mmWave’s capacity boost in a different perspective, its speed of 231.40 Mbps with congestion was nearly as fast as the 256.80 Mbps recorded on mid-band 5G without congestion. RootMetrics’ study showed that mmWave provides speeds 4-5 times faster than those of mid- and low-band in congested circumstances, delivering on its promise of providing greater capacity and faster speeds under heavy network load.
Millimeter wave also lends additional capacity in dense areas such as stadiums. Poor performance during events such as concerts stems from the networks needing to deal with extra demand and becoming congested. Constraints on the spectrum allocated to 5G today can impact performance more in places like stadiums than in other areas because many users are concentrated in a small space and share the same limited spectrum. To illustrate how mmWave enables better network performance, we can look to Ookla Wind® walk testing data, which can show the benefits of mmWave in terms of 5G bandwidth. Since each carrier is 100 MHz wide, a test showed that a stadium used four carriers aggregated 80% of the time, which resulted in 400 MHz of 5G bandwidth. In turn, this helped to achieve higher 5G capacity and lower latency.
Another benefit of mmWave that the Wind test showed is that with the mmWave 5G NSA network, most of the user data traffic is carried by mmWave spectrum only (contrary to other 5G bands in NSA). This reduces the load on the LTE network. This, in turn, allows legacy users with non-5G capable devices to use an LTE network that is less congested because it doesn’t have to support 5G devices as well.
We will examine the relationship between spectrum and 5G performance in future articles. Subscribe to Ookla Insights™ to stay up to date on our analyses.
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