How U.S. Mobile Operators are Putting Fresh Spectrum to Use for the Masses
As U.S. consumers shifted their lifestyles and mobile usage in response to the coronavirus, U.S. mobile operators were working to ensure that mobile networks were ready for a potential spike in demand. They struck multiple temporary spectrum deals with various license holders of unused spectrum, including a variety of spectrum assets held by DISH. Today we’re examining how these temporary spectrum allocations have performed at providing incremental capacity gain across many markets and operators.
Verizon expands FDD LTE
On March 18, the Federal Communications Commission granted Verizon’s request for Special Temporary Authority (STA) to leverage licenses held by DISH’s designated entities, SNR Wireless and Northstar Wireless. These licenses enabled Verizon to add as much as 10 MHz of FDD LTE in some markets to boost user experience. With this added spectrum, Verizon was able to consistently deliver mean LTE download speeds of around 36 Mbps during the first four months of 2020. That performance represents a 10.7% increase in download speeds over the same period last year.
AT&T leverages AWS
DISH also agreed to provide a portion of its unused Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) spectrum licenses to AT&T for 60 days, free of charge. Both Verizon and AT&T have already put some of this spectrum to use in a limited number of markets, on some (not all) cell sites.
Over the first four months of 2020, AT&T recorded a major performance boost, with mean LTE download speeds showing as much as a 32.6% year-over-year improvement.
This significant improvement can be attributed to many factors:
- In some markets, AT&T serves customers across as many as nine different spectrum bands, which provides ample capacity and flexibility.
- Newer devices are able to leverage five-channel Carrier Aggregation, allowing users to complete download tasks and return resources back to the network much more quickly, resulting in a more efficient redistribution of resources across the network.
- The FirstNet network integration required a technician’s visit to cell sites, which AT&T used to upgrade its existing radio access equipment while deploying more efficient LTE features like 4×4 MIMO and 256QAM, as well as NR capable radios in the cellular band (850 MHz).
- AT&T also performed additional “under the hood” core network improvements.
T-Mobile doubles down on 600 MHz
T-Mobile has been the most active operator by far in reallocating spectrum to prepare for possible demand increases. First on Friday, March 13, DISH pushed out a press release late in the afternoon announcing that it allowed T-Mobile to use its 600 MHz spectrum licenses nationwide for 60 days as a relief during the pandemic. In a blog post the following day, T-Mobile confirmed the use of DISH’s spectrum, in addition to that of other 600 MHz spectrum holders, including: Bluewater, Channel 51, Comcast, Grain Management affiliate NewLevel LLC, LB Holdings and Omega Wireless LLC.
The FCC acted swiftly and approved the 60-day temporary spectrum access to T-Mobile on Sunday, March 15. Because T-Mobile already operates the 600 MHz network nationwide, and radio equipment made by Ericsson and Nokia already support both LTE and NR technologies, T-Mobile was able to deploy the incoming spectrum almost immediately by remotely reconfiguring the equipment. By the morning of March 17, T-Mobile’s LTE bandwidth quadrupled, in some cases jumping from 5 MHz to 20 MHz of total spectrum. On March 19, T-Mobile announced a successful deployment of the additional 600 MHz spectrum.
Likely a result of the quick activation of the additional DISH spectrum, T-Mobile’s mean download speed over LTE recorded a 10.5% improvement when comparing April 2020 with April 2019.
As operators continue to adapt their network strategies to changing consumer behavior, it will be interesting to watch how spectrum is allocated to accommodate increased demand. We will continue to follow mobile performance in the U.S. to see if mobile operators can capitalize on these gains once the 60-day window is up. If you’re interested in how networks have been performing in your region, learn more about Speedtest Intelligence™.