Although T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon are all offering “5G” in the United States, they — and their international peers — have continued to use 4G gear for their network backbones, deploying 5G radios as the first of two steps to offering fully 5G service. Today, T-Mobile announced it has taken the second step by launching the “world’s first nationwide standalone 5G network,” a change it says will improve 5G performance, as well as substantially expanding its U.S. 5G coverage.
Unlike “non-standalone 5G,” which combines new 5G radios with an older 4G network core, standalone 5G is next-generation through and through, enabling carriers to deliver even faster data speeds alongside a wider array of 5G-specific network features. While early 5G networks boosted download speeds, they left upload speeds and latency unchanged from 4G, so initial 5G devices could stream larger videos more quickly from the cloud but could not send their own videos back at similarly fast rates.
According to T-Mobile VP Karri Kuoppamaki, standalone 5G will deliver up to 40% lower latency — higher network responsiveness — as well as additional 20-30% improvements in download and upload speeds compared with prior performance, the latter thanks to 5G’s higher spectral efficiency. In markets where T-Mobile reallocates additional blocks of low band 4G spectrum to 5G, data speeds could multiply a further 2-3 times on the newer network. That could help its unimpressive 5G performance in cities like Los Angeles come closer to the faster speeds we saw late last year in Maui.
Collectively, these boosts will move T-Mobile’s 5G network closer to supporting the streaming of quick-changing mixed reality content and games over cellular connections, even as the user’s position and location continuously change. Though T-Mobile will continue to operate non-standalone and standalone 5G networks during its transition to full 5G, phones connected to standalone 5G won’t need to simultaneously use their LTE and 5G radios, which will improve phone battery life in some places. Additionally, Kuoppamaki notes that T-Mobile’s cellular spectrum holdings are strong, including 4 times the mid band spectrum Verizon holds, enabling it to offer 5G service without the need to suffer performance penalties from dynamically sharing spectrum.
The breadth of T-Mobile’s standalone 5G rollout is also significant, adding 300,000 new square miles of coverage to the already nationwide network — that’s a 30% improvement in the 5G footprint, including 2,000 new cities and towns. As a result, T-Mobile says its 5G network will reach 250 million people in a total of 7,500 U.S. locations, which Kuoppamaki says is twice the footprint of AT&T’s 5G network and around 10,000 times as large as Verizon’s currently millimeter wave-only 5G service. T-Mobile’s low band standalone 5G will have special benefits in rural areas with no existing midband LTE service and should help 5G reach indoors where it might previously have struggled.
Industry group 3GPP approved the international standard for standalone 5G in early July, setting the stage for improvements in mobile broadband performance, as well as the deployment of 5G vehicle-to-everything (V2X) solutions and 5G-based industrial IoT devices. While small-scale test networks have popped up with the new standard, including a live standalone 5G network at the U.K.’s Coventry University to support medical training, T-Mobile’s new deployment is both nationwide and commercial, available to paying customers across the country and not tied to a single school or business.
T-Mobile celebrated the launch with a surprise drone light show in Lisbon, North Dakota, a city of under 2,000 people and 2.25 square miles of land. While Lisbon isn’t exactly a technology hotbed, it underscores the carrier’s ongoing commitment to bringing 5G to historically underserved parts of the country, a pledge that helped T-Mobile win FCC approval for its acquisition of smaller rival Sprint.