The age of mmWave 5G sputters to a dusty death

According to OpenSignal, the average mobile user in the US today connects to a millimeter wave (mmWave) 5G network less than 1% of the time. That figure is true for Verizon, which has positioned mmWave 5G at the center of its "ultra wideband" nationwide marketing message for years, as well as T-Mobile, which has made barely a mention of mmWave 5G.

Indeed, the difference between the two companies' mmWave 5G efforts sounds like a rounding error: According to OpenSignal, Verizon customers connect to a mmWave 5G network 0.7% of the time, while T-Mobile customers connect to a mmWave 5G network 0.2% of the time.

Click here for a larger version of this image. (Source: OpenSignal)

OpenSignal obtains its data from software installed in more than 100 million phones around the globe, which send back anonymized usage data to the company on a daily basis. OpenSignal's latest mmWave 5G report features data collected from March to June, 2021.

A tale told by an idiot

The findings from the network-monitoring company help to provide some needed context and clarity to the past three years of noise, jostling and ubiquitous advertising around a technology once deemed a matter of national security and the herald of the fourth industrial revolution.

After calling the technology "wireless fiber" in 2016, Verizon ushered in the first real phase of 5G with the launch of its mobile mmWave services in 2018.

The launch was significant because it represented an expansion by the cellular industry into a completely new swath of spectrum: the mmWave bands. Such bands generally sit above 20GHz – far above the spectrum bands traditionally used for cellular operations – and were considered mostly unusable for decades. But 5G technology promised to support high-speed mobile operations in the mmWave spectrum bands, thus allowing operators to raise their peak network speeds from around 100Mbit/s to above 1Gbit/s.

There's a catch, though. Transmissions in mmWave spectrum can't travel more than a few thousand feet, and often cannot penetrate glass or trees. Transmissions in traditional, lowband cellular spectrum bands, such as 800MHz or 1900MHz, can often travel miles and reach deep inside buildings.

No matter: Verizon and other carriers embarked on an ambitious effort to install mmWave transmitters in downtown areas and inside stadiums, airports and other buildings.

After all, operators needed something to show investors considering 5G operations in their traditional, lowband spectrum holdings turned out to be no faster than 4G. For example, Verizon's Bill Stone told Light Reading late last year that 5G in lowband spectrum "is not radically different" than 4G.

Full of sound and fury

Throughout 2019 and 2020, Verizon, AT&T and other operators continued to hype their 5G mmWave networks. But they never provided firm buildout targets – though some did eventually provide detailed coverage maps. Nonetheless, they continued to position mmWave 5G at the center of their 5G advertisements – advertisements that often reached a nationwide audience despite the fact that the vast majority of Americans likely won't ever live anywhere near a mmWave network.

Verizon at one point hinted that its mmWave network could eventually reach up to 30 million households, or roughly 24% of the entire US. But the operator has since stepped away from that figure following its $50 billion purchase of midband C-band spectrum earlier this year. Such spectrum sits well below the mmWave bands and promises to support much broader coverage areas.

The operators' obfuscation around the extent of their mmWave 5G ambitions helped to weave a web of confusion around the topic. Compounding the matter, Apple's launch of its first mmWave-capable iPhone last year focused heavily on the blazing-fast speeds supported by 5G and not on the fact that few customers would spend much time connected to the technology.

Signifying nothing

The age of mmWave 5G came to a close earlier this year, after AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile collectively spent almost $100 billion on midband C-band spectrum. Verizon and AT&T subsequently pledged to spend a combined $16 billion to $18 billion constructing networks to support 5G transmissions in their C-band spectrum.

Those buildouts will likely divert money, time and attention away from operators' mmWave network expansions. Thus, the time users spend connected to mmWave networks, as tracked by OpenSignal, likely won't change much in the near term.

To be clear, Verizon has remained supportive of mmWave 5G. For example, it recently said it expects to increase the number of its mmWave cell sites from 17,000 today to 30,000 by the end of 2021. And it hopes to eventually transmit up to 50% of its network traffic in urban areas over mmWave 5G, though it did not provide a firm timeframe for that goal nor did it define what constitutes an "urban" area.

Verizon's efforts will likely be aided by a growth in travel to downtown areas, stadiums, airports and other crowded areas as pandemic worries recede.

Nonetheless, most financial analysts have concluded that operators' interest in mmWave is mostly over. The financial analysts at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co dubbed Verizon's investment into mmWave a "staggering whiff."

"The lie of millimeter wave is dead," agreed the financial analysts at New Street Research after hearing of Verizon's latest mmWave buildout targets. After all, a Google study from 2019 indicated it would take roughly 13 million transmitters and $400 billion to deliver 100Mbit/s to 72% of the US population using 5G in mmWave spectrum.

Regardless, mmWave proponents march ever onwards. "The global deployment of 5G mmWave is now inevitable," proclaimed Qualcomm's new CEO, Cristiano Amon, in a recent release touting international momentum behind mmWave 5G. Qualcomm hopes to profit from the sale of mmWave chipsets to smartphone makers globally.

Most industry observers believe operations in mmWave spectrum will eventually find a place within a bigger 5G network. For example, mmWave 5G might never cover a standard American neighborhood, but it might be widely available in destinations like restaurants or offices.

But that kind of coverage likely will require new technologies that dramatically cut down the cost of mmWave deployments. And in the meantime, expect most mobile users in the US to remain connected to 5G on lowband and midband spectrum, leaving mmWave connections for an occasional trip to the airport or a football game.

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