5G in rural areas bridges a gap that 4G doesn’t, especially low- and mid-band

Collage of cartoon animals and houses, all with satellite dishes.
Enlarge / This might be the best listing image Aurich has ever created. The duck just kills me. Look at his little hat!
Aurich Lawson / Getty Images

In this third installment of our series explaining what we can expect from 5G, we’re going to focus on how 5G deployment can impact rural and underserved areas.

A brief refresher: What is 5G?

If you didn’t read the first article in the series, you might need a refresher on what 5G actually is—and is not. The term “5G” itself doesn’t refer to any particular frequency range; it just specifies the communications protocol being used—like 2G, 3G, and 4G before it. You may sometimes also see the term 5G NR, which simply means “fifth generation, new radio”—the two terms are interchangeable. Fortunately, and unlike earlier generations, there are no competing standards—5G is just 5G.

Common frequencies used by consumer-oriented wireless devices. Look at all that mmWave spectrum!
Enlarge / Common frequencies used by consumer-oriented wireless devices. Look at all that mmWave spectrum!
Jim Salter

With that said, much of what you’ve heard about 5G likely does refer to specific frequencies that it can operate at. There are three general bands allocated for 5G, which are further subdivided and leased to individual carriers. Those are the low, mid, and high bands. The low and mid bands are 600MHz-900MHz and 2.5GHz-4.2GHz, respectively. These bands share similar radio characteristics with existing 4G LTE low and high bands; taken together, you may also hear the pair of them referred to as “sub-6GHz” or “5G FR1.”

The most dramatic claims—and the most dour predictions—you’ve heard about 5G aren’t actually about the protocol itself; they’re about the third band it can operate on, known as mmWave (short for “millimeter wave”), or “5G FR2.” Millimeter-wave spectrum runs from 28GHz to 52.6GHz and offers incredibly wide channels—up to 800MHz each—but it also has very different radio frequency characteristics than the sub-6GHz bands. Millimeter wave does not generally penetrate exterior walls, and it does not diffract around obstacles—but the “echoes” it produces when bounced from hard obstacles such as glass or concrete are usable, so you don’t necessarily need a direct, clear line of sight to a nearby tower for mmWave to work.

That’s enough information to understand the rest of what we’re covering today, but if you’re interested in further hairy details, you may want to skip back to the first article in the series; it goes into considerable additional detail.

Sub-6GHz and rural communities

This OpenSignal chart shows average speeds for mmWave, mid-band, and low-band deployments from US carriers.
Enlarge / This OpenSignal chart shows average speeds for mmWave, mid-band, and low-band deployments from US carriers.

We suspect that rural communities are unlikely to see mmWave deployments soon. While the extremely high throughput and low latency of mmWave is exciting, it comes with some steep disadvantages for rural areas—it’s considerably shorter range than sub-6GHz bands, and it has much more difficulty penetrating things, including but not limited to wooded areas.

The biggest obstacle to deploying mmWave in rural communities comes down to the same reason that those communities are underserved in the first place—their lower population densities and wider territories makes them less immediately profitable to invest in. We suspect that for the next several years, 5G deployments to rural communities will look largely like the 4G deployments that preceded them—mostly in the very long-range low band, under 1GHz.

Verizon's 5G deployments are mmWave, Sprint's are largely mid-band, and AT&T's and T-Mobile's are low-band. All bands show significant improvement versus 4G.
Enlarge / Verizon’s 5G deployments are mmWave, Sprint’s are largely mid-band, and AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s are low-band. All bands show significant improvement versus 4G.

That doesn’t mean that those communities won’t see improvements, however. Although the difference between 4G and 5G in the low and mid bands isn’t as eye-watering as the difference between sub-6GHz and mmWave, it’s still pretty substantial. OpenSignal tested average US 5G download speeds from Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T on each of the three bands. AT&T’s 59.3Mbps and T-Mobile’s 47.5Mbps low-band download speeds may not set your hair on fire, but they’re substantially better than the speeds that 4G on similar bands provides now.

These 5G low-band improvements are especially attractive in device-dense environments. You might think that wouldn’t apply to rural communities—after all, the whole problem is that they don’t have enough people to interest communication companies in investing in them. However, those communities tend to be serviced by relatively few towers and largely with narrow, low-band channels. There’s less airtime to go around on those low-band channels, and many rural areas have seen service sharply drop since quarantine efforts began, with more people staying home and competing for airtime on the same long-range, low-bandwidth frequencies.

These areas are likely to see two major benefits from the 5G rollout—the higher efficiency due to tighter timing makes more airtime available on both low and mid bands, and the need to refresh equipment at the towers to support 5G makes it more likely that the growing “downtown” areas of these small communities will at least see some low-band towers augmented with new mid-band equipment. The mid-band doesn’t reach as far as the low band does—but it offers several times more bandwidth per channel, meaning each mid-band tower is capable of serving more users with higher speeds than low-band only towers can.

In many rural households, these improvements don’t just extend to phones and tablets—household Internet access via cellular broadband is increasingly common. This trend is likely to pick up further as 5G deployments increase the speed and quality of cellular Internet connections. We expect to see a broad array of devices such as Netgear’s upcoming MR5200 sub-6GHz 5G modem make it easy to deliver whole-house Wi-Fi bridged to a 5G Internet connection.

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