5G performance is dependent on spectrum. Indeed, the spectrum a user receives, is dependent on the smartphone they own. Specifically, each smartphone supports different spectrum bands. Additionally, the carrier that the user is with, such as AT&T, Verizon, or T-Mobile also has access to i) different spectrum bands and ii) amounts of that spectrum, known as bandwidth. These carriers make this spectrum available to their subscribers, which, in turn, drives 5G performance.

Below, we discuss the three key types of 5G spectrum, being low-, mid- and high-band. Additionally, we outline which spectrum bands can be used in the latest 5G-capable smartphones. Furthermore, we provide a breakdown of which U.S. carriers (i.e., Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile) have the strongest spectrum holdings. Finally, we detail how spectrum ties into a greater need for digital infrastructure.

What is Spectrum and Why is it Important?

Spectrum is the lifeblood of the wireless industry. In order to build a fully operational 5G network, United States carriers need to have three layers of spectrum. Specifically, these include low-, mid- and high-band. Low-band is typically the first layer of deployment, as it provides much better coverage than mid- and high-band frequencies. Low-band is comprised of 4G/LTE frequencies that are re-farmed to be used in 5G through dynamic spectrum sharing. In the middle, are mid-band frequencies, which are sub-6 GHz, and include 3.5 GHz, a global standard. Finally, high-band spectrum comprises ultra-wide frequencies that are typically 24 GHz and higher.

Ultimately, all frequency bands will be part of 5G. Indeed, this means that United States carriers will be able to leverage their full spectrum portfolio and coverage capabilities. Carriers will have to combine their low-, mid- and high-band spectrum in order to deliver users the performance that they expect. Whether it is for video streaming, autonomous vehicles, or advanced enterprise use cases.

U.S. Carriers Deploying 5G Spectrum in a Layer Cake

The combined channels of low-, mid- and high-band spectrum together form what is known as a “layer cake”. Specifically, the layer cake is critical for the type of 5G services that customers can use on a ubiquitous basis nationwide, in urban, suburban, and rural environments. Indeed, it is the combination of low-, mid- and high-band spectrum that enables more capacity and an increase in speeds for customers.

5G Spectrum Layer Cake

For nationwide coverage of the United States, the only way for carriers to implement 5G is through the layer cake approach to spectrum. Firstly, low-band covers broad geographies and penetrates buildings well. Secondly, the populous areas use mid-band. Thirdly, when it becomes very dense, high-band (or millimeter wave / mmWave) spectrum covers areas such as inside stadiums and event locations.

5G Spectrum and Performance for Users

The 5G performance that users receive depends a lot on what signal (or spectrum) their 5G phone runs on.

Higher Frequency vs. Lower Frequency

Higher frequency bands are characterized by signals that have higher capacity. This means that a higher amount of traffic / data can be transmitted. However, the downside is that these higher frequency signals travel shorter distances.

Lower frequency bands are characterized by signals that have lower capacity. This means that a lower amount of traffic / data can be transmitted. However, the upside is that these signals travel longer distances.

Major Smartphone Compatibility with Different Spectrum Bands

Smartphones and 5G Spectrum Compatibility
iPhone 12 – Compatibility
  • Low-band spectrum including 600 MHz, 700 MHz, and 850 MHz frequencies
  • Mid-band (old) spectrum including AWS (1.7 GHz), PCS (1.9 GHz), and BRS (2.5 GHz)
  • Mid-band (new) spectrum including C-band (3.5 GHz) and CBRS (3.5 GHz)
  • High-band spectrum including 28 GHz and 39 GHz
iPhone 11 – Compatibility
  • Low-band spectrum including 600 MHz, 700 MHz, and 850 MHz frequencies
  • Mid-band (old) spectrum including AWS (1.7 GHz), PCS (1.9 GHz), and BRS (2.5 GHz)
iPhone X (10) – Compatibility
  • Low-band spectrum including 600 MHz, 700 MHz, and 850 MHz frequencies
  • Mid-band (old) spectrum including AWS (1.7 GHz), PCS (1.9 GHz), and BRS (2.5 GHz)
Samsung Galaxy S20 – Compatibility
  • Low-band spectrum including 600 MHz, 700 MHz, and 850 MHz frequencies
  • Mid-band (old) spectrum including AWS (1.7 GHz), PCS (1.9 GHz) and BRS (2.5 GHz)
  • Mid-band (new) spectrum including CBRS (3.5 GHz) but not C-band (3.5 GHz)
  • High-band spectrum is not on the standard model, but is available through the Samsung Galaxy S20 UW
Samsung Galaxy S10 – Compatibility
  • Low-band spectrum including 600 MHz, 700 MHz, and 850 MHz frequencies
  • Mid-band (old) spectrum including AWS (1.7 GHz), PCS (1.9 GHz), and BRS (2.5 GHz)

5G Deployed in Layers, Different Spectrum Bands

Coverage, capacity, and latency provide a helpful framework for distinguishing the different characteristics of low-, mid-, and high-band spectrum. Below, we discuss how each spectrum band provides advantages and disadvantages for users in terms of coverage, capacity, and latency.

5G Spectrum by Coverage, Capacity, Latency

High-Band (known as Capacity Spectrum)

High-band spectrum typically ranges from frequencies of 24 GHz to 40 GHz. Coverage is more limited in high-band, as this “millimeter wave” spectrum has limited propagation. Indeed, high-band signals do not travel much more than 500 to 600 feet away from a small cell node.

Specifically, high-band does not travel very far because the signal gets easily absorbed or scattered by obstacles. For example, even if the user is standing close to the node, where the signal is broadcast from, such as only a couple hundred feet away, there can be some degradation because high-band signals only travel well within direct line-of-sight. Obstacles like trees, walls, buildings and even raindrops in the air can block and disrupt the high frequency signal.

Capacity in high-band, allows for network speeds that are 10x faster than low-band 5G networks. Indeed, high-band is capable of transmitting significant amounts of information (i.e., bandwidth). Therefore, high-band is used for extreme bandwidth needs in dense urban areas.

Latency for high-band is ultra-low, allowing for 5G’s promise of 5 milliseconds over-the-air latency. Indeed, latency in high-band is much lower than to mid- and low-band frequencies.

Mid-Band (known as Backbone Spectrum)

Mid-band spectrum typically ranges from 1 GHz to 6 GHz, and includes frequencies such as 3.5 GHz, a global standard. Importantly, mid-band is a mixture of coverage and capacity for 5G services. Specifically, this means that mid-band has fast speeds and good transmission distances. Indeed, mid-band works well in cities, but is not as effective for rural coverage.

Mid-band is important for providing wider bandwidth which supports 5G’s initial use cases of Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) services and the Internet of Things (IoT). Latency of mid-band is lower, compared to low-band spectrum, but higher, compared to high-band spectrum.

Low-Band (known as Coverage Spectrum)

Low-band spectrum typically is less than 1 GHz, and includes frequencies such as 600 MHz, 700 MHz, and 850 MHz. Importantly, low-band signals are the foundation of the 5G network. Coverage in low-band is wide, as signals can penetrate obstacles such as walls, in the way that light goes through glass. Indeed, low-band provides better 5G coverage in buildings.

Capacity in low-band 5G allows for higher speeds than 4G / LTE. However, it provides only moderate capacity relative to mid- and high-band frequencies. Indeed, low-band capacity helps to support massive scale Internet of Things services, which are not as bandwidth-intensive.

Latency in low-band is higher compared to both mid- and high-band frequencies.

Spectrum Holdings by Carrier

The four largest holders of spectrum in the United States include Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and DISH Network. Indeed, DISH Network owns Boost Mobile and is building a new facilities-based 5G network. Furthermore, companies including U.S. Cellular, Comcast, SiriusXM, Charter, and Cox also own spectrum, but their holdings are much smaller than these four large carriers. Therefore, below we focus on a high-level overview of the low-, mid-, and high-band holdings of Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and DISH Network.

If you want more detail of each carrier’s precise spectrum holdings by individual band then please checkout our product “United States Carriers – Spectrum Holdings“. In this document, it provides you with the raw spectrum data. For example, that T-Mobile owns a 31 MHz block of spectrum in the 600 MHz band.

Below, we focus on this high-level overview of the low-, mid-, and high-band holdings of Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and DISH Network. Note that spectrum holdings represent the weighted average holdings in MHz for each carrier.

Spectrum Holdings by Carrier - Subscribers

Verizon – Spectrum Holdings

#3 out of 4 in low-band, #4 out of 4 in mid-band, and #1 out of 4 in high-band.

  • Low-band: Verizon holds 47 MHz of spectrum depth
  • Mid-band: Verizon holds 84 MHz of spectrum depth
  • High-band: Verizon holds 2,000+ MHz of spectrum depth

AT&T – Spectrum Holdings

#1 out of 4 in low-band, #2 out of 4 in mid-band, and #3 out of 4 in high-band.

  • Low-band: AT&T holds 55 MHz of spectrum depth
  • Mid-band: AT&T holds 93 MHz of spectrum depth
  • High-band: AT&T holds ~1,200 MHz of spectrum depth

T-Mobile – Spectrum Holdings

#2 out of 4 in low-band, #1 out of 4 in mid-band, and #2 out of 4 in high-band.

  • Low-band: T-Mobile holds 55 MHz of spectrum depth
  • Mid-band: T-Mobile holds 256 MHz of spectrum depth
  • High-band: T-Mobile holds 1,500+ MHz of spectrum depth

DISH Network – Spectrum Holdings

#4 out of 4 in low-band, #3 out of 4 in mid-band, and #4 out of 4 in high-band.

  • Low-band: DISH Network holds 24 MHz of spectrum depth
  • Mid-band: DISH Network holds 91 MHz of spectrum depth
  • High-band: DISH Network holds over 1,100 MHz of spectrum depth

Key Takeaways from the Spectrum Holdings of U.S. Carriers

Spectrum Holdings by Carrier - Ranking

Verizon – Takeaways

Verizon has the strongest position in high-band spectrum. However, high-band spectrum is not widely used currently, as it is a nascent technology that will develop further over the next 5 to 10 years.

In contrast, Verizon has the weakest spectrum holdings of the combined low- and mid-band spectrum, which is collectively known as sub-6 GHz spectrum, as compared to AT&T and T-Mobile. However, Verizon will be buying significantly more mid-band spectrum, specifically C-band spectrum, in the C-band auction, which is taking place in December 2020.

AT&T – Takeaways

AT&T has the weakest spectrum holdings overall, as compared to Verizon and T-Mobile. Additionally, AT&T will have less mid-band spectrum than Verizon following the C-band spectrum auction. Furthermore, AT&T currently has the lowest amount of high-band spectrum holdings, as compared to Verizon and T-Mobile.

In addition to AT&T’s weakness in spectrum holdings, the carrier also has issues from a corporate perspective. Indeed, AT&T as a company has a significant amount of debt and other declining business lines such as video services through DIRECTV. In turn, this financial position makes it difficult for AT&T to buy more spectrum licenses.

T-Mobile – Takeaways

T-Mobile has the strongest spectrum holdings overall, as compared to Verizon and AT&T. Specifically, T-Mobile has the second highest amount of low-band spectrum and is far-and-away the leader in mid-band spectrum with 256 MHz of spectrum depth. Indeed T-Mobile’s mid-band spectrum holdings are ~3x the holdings of both Verizon and AT&T. Furthermore, T-Mobile also has the second highest amount of high-band spectrum.

Overall, T-Mobile has a well-rounded spectrum portfolio, fitting the “layer cake” approach to building a ubiquitous 5G network.

DISH Network – Takeaways

At face value, DISH may appear to have low spectrum holdings compared to Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile. However, the company is in a strong position relative to its 5G network build. Firstly, DISH owns Boost Mobile, which has a subscriber base of only ~9 million. Therefore, DISH has a subscriber base which is less than 10% of the subscribers of Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile.

Specifically, Verizon has ~120 million subscribers, AT&T has ~94 million subscribers, and T-Mobile has ~100 million subscribers. Therefore, DISH is in a strong position on a spectrum per subscriber basis.

Secondly, DISH intends to build a “real” 5G network, which will comprise 50k tower sites. DISH estimates that it will cost $10 billion to build-out its greenfield 5G wireless network.

Thirdly, DISH has a 7-year mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) agreement, on T-Mobile’s network. Indeed, this allows DISH’s wireless customers to roam on the T-Mobile network for the next 7 years, before DISH even has to start using its large spectrum holdings.

Geniuses Of 5G

If you are serious about wanting to get detailed background about the 5G plans of Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and DISH Network, then we recommend checking out our eBook titled the “Geniuses Of 5G”. This eBook gives readers access to the ultimate behind-the-scenes look at the 5G industry. Specifically, by unlocking the most valuable stories, secrets, and case studies directly from 10 of the most successful 5G corporate executives and industry leaders. These insights are taken from the current and former Chief Executive Officers of Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and DISH Network.

Spectrum and Digital Infrastructure

Digital Infrastructure is the physical link driving 5G connectivity as Internet traffic, mobile data traffic, and data storage needs increase. The four sectors of digital infrastructure, include Towers, Data Centers, Fiber, and Small Cells & Distributed Antenna Systems. Below are some highlights of how spectrum and the digital infrastructure sectors of towers and small cells co-exist.

digital infrastructure

Generally, towers are used to broadcast the frequencies for low-band and mid-band spectrum. In suburban and rural areas, larger antennas are placed higher up on towers to deploy this low- and mid-band spectrum. Typically, the lower the spectrum band, the larger the antennas will be on the tower.

When antennas are brought from a high-point to a low-point, it reduces the size of the coverage area, which explains the relevance of small cells. Indeed, small cells are used to broadcast the frequencies for high-band spectrum in dense urban areas.

Smaller antennas are placed at lower heights and are used to deploy millimeter wave spectrum through these small cells. Specifically, these small cells are deployed on city infrastructure such as streetlights, utility poles and the sides of buildings.

Adam Simmons is the Founder & CEO of Dgtl Infra. He started his career with an S&P 500-listed big box retailer, in an operations management role. Adam's entrepreneurial "itch" led him to start a 5G-driven company, focused on innovative retail solutions using augmented reality and shoppable videos, which was eventually sold to an advertising and consulting group. After, realizing the potential of 5G, Adam shifted his efforts towards investing in the "building blocks" of 5G - known as digital infrastructure, completing a number of strategic investments, buying cellular towers, data centers and fiber networks.

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