5G C-band upgrade from Verizon and AT&T: From airports to deployments, the latest on what you need to know

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Screenshot by Sarah Tew/CNET

If you’ve been paying attention to the disputes between carriers AT&T and Verizon against the Federal Aviation Administration over 5G-related safety issues, you might have heard the term C-band.

It’s more than just a wonky designation for a band of radio waves. That extra spectrum could dramatically change your 5G experience, which for many has been an incremental upgrade – if at all – over 4G. C-band should give AT&T and Verizon 5G customers wider coverage and faster speeds, though it has encounter problems with the FAA and the aviation industry.

Here’s everything you need to know about C-band and how carriers plan to use it to upgrade their mobile internet service.

What is C-band and why should I care?

Samsung Galaxy S21 5G connected to Verizon's C-band test network

A Samsung Galaxy S21 5G connected to Verizon’s C-band test network in downtown Los Angeles, running a speed test inside an elevator.

David Lumb/CNET

Let us first explain what C band is. It is a set of radio waves operating in a frequency range between 3.7 GHz and 3.98 GHz. This frequency falls under what is known as the midband spectrum.

While AT&T and Verizon (as well as T-Mobile) have had 5G networks for a few years now, the first two have largely been limited to rolling out next-generation networks using what’s known as low-band spectrum or high band millimeter wave. .

The low band has excellent coverage, but its speeds are often equivalent to those of 4G LTE. Most people on AT&T and Verizon are familiar with this type of 5G, which is why the difference was minimal for many.

Millimeter wave performs great, but coverage is often limited to a handful of city blocks in some cities or parts of an arena, stadium, or airport. Not everyone will show up in Times Square or SoFi Stadium for this kind of improved 5G.

With midband spectrum, a carrier can offer 5G that’s not only much faster, but works in more places.

OK, but what speed are we talking about?

Verizon said it expects peak C-band download speeds to be 1 gigabit per second, which is 10 times faster than 4G LTE. It’s comparable to the fastest home internet service, but note the term “peak” as the best case scenario for connectivity. Performance improvements are why carriers spent over $80 billion — with the bulk of that bid coming from Verizon and AT&T — to acquire C-band spectrum when the Federal Communications Commission auctioned it off.

Read more: Our first look at Verizon’s C-band network

It’s also worth noting that while T-Mobile purchased C-band for use starting in late 2023, it’s not as desperate to deploy it now thanks to the large amount of midband spectrum as it acquired when it merged with Sprint. T-Mobile’s midband 5G network already reaches 200 million people, with the company previously targeting average download speeds of 400 Mbps.

Verizon and AT&T will use C-band to fill coverage gaps in their 5G networks that fall between millimeter wave, which provides high speeds in small areas within cities, and low bands, which provide better range but are not always faster than 4G LTE. .

What’s the difference between C-band and other forms of 5G?

Once C-band service goes live, Verizon and AT&T customers should see broader 5G service with higher speeds that fall between 4G and mmWave 5G. Since the new C-band service will be integrated into existing coverage, customers may not even realize they are connecting to the new frequencies.

For Verizon users, when connected to C-band, you should see a “5G UW” or “5G UWB” indicator on your phone. AT&T users will see the “5G+” branding.

Both indicators are similar to what each carrier already uses to designate their respective mmWave connections.

Will I need special devices to connect to this?

Pixel 6 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro

The Pixel 6 Pro, left, and iPhone 13 Pro will get C-band support.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Before you get excited about those faster incoming speeds, be aware that only a few phones have the hardware to connect to C-band. These are Apple’s iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 ranges; Samsung Galaxy S21 lineup, Z Flip 3 and Z Fold 3; and Google’s Pixel 6 and 6 Pro. Verizon and AT&T have also confirmed that Apple’s 5G iPads (iPad Pro and iPad Mini) will also work with their respective new services.

Some older phones and devices may receive software updates, but it’s not yet clear which devices and when those updates will roll out. New flagship phones sold by Verizon and AT&T in 2022 and beyond are expected to support the new flavor of 5G.

Will I need a special plan?

Depending on your carrier, you might. AT&T offers C-band, which it will call 5G Plus, with most of its unlimited plans. This includes the Unlimited Starter, Extra and Elite offered today as well as a many of its older unlimited plans from recent years.

Verizon, which will offer C-band under its Ultra Wideband (or UW) brand, will limit access to a handful of its unlimited options. This includes the Do More, Play More, or Get More plans sold today as well as the old Above and Beyond unlimited options from a few years ago.

If you don’t have one of these plans, you won’t be able to take advantage of the faster network even if you have a phone that supports it.

When is the C band activated?

Verizon and AT&T began to activate their C-band services on Jan. 19 after delays related to concerns raised by the FAA and airlines.

The Verizon team is working on a cell tower

A Verizon team works on a cell tower in Orem, Utah in December 2019 to prepare it for 5G.

George Frey/AFP via Getty Images

What is the problem for the FAA and the airlines?

Airlines and aviation officials have argued that frequencies covered by C-band have the potential to interfere with instruments used on planes and argue that 5G deployments near airports could endanger take-off and landing operations.

The carriers, FCC and FAA disagree on whether C-band 5G signals that use the 3.7 GHz to 3.98 GHz frequency range could interfere with instruments such as altimeters that measure in the 4.2 GHz to 4.4 GHz spectrum. Wireless industry lobbying group CTIA says nearly 40 countries – including Australia, China, France, Japan, South Korea and the UK – have already rolled out 5G on the Internet. C-band without any problems involving aircraft.

After recently planning to activate C-band on January 5, Verizon and AT&T have granted a final two-week grace period so that all parties can take necessary precautions, including exclusion zones that prohibit C-band service at a few kilometers around. airports.

After airline executives notified of major flight disruptions if C-band was launched as planned, on January 18, the carriers each agreed to postpone or “voluntarily” limit C-band launches around certain airports. For Verizon, these adjustments will affect 10% of its planned C-band rollout, with the carrier now aiming to cover 90 million people at launch, up from its original target of 100 million.

So no 5G in airports?

Low-band and millimeter-wave 5G service will continue around airports, and Verizon will boost its non-C-band coverage in those areas as part of its broader 5G rollout efforts this year. In short, your phone will still be able to perform as it is today, you just won’t have the faster, more consistent speeds in and around airports that C-band would have provided.

And T-Mobile?

Verizon and AT&T are still lagging behind T-Mobile, which announced in November that 80% of T-Mobile customers in its 5G coverage of 200 million people can access its mid-band 5G service (which it calls Ultra Capacity). T-Mobile’s midband network operates at a different frequency than C-band and is of no concern to the FAA or airlines.

In addition to coverage, carrier competition will also come down to speed. T-Mobile says its midband 5G network is targeting average download speeds of 400 Mbps. By comparison, our first Verizon C-Band Test found speeds ranging from 400 Mbps to 1.4 gigabits per second just below the 5G transmitter. Distance isn’t the only metric, as we still have over 400 Mbps in elevators and nearly 100 Mbps in underground parking lots. The test, however, was highly controlled using Verizon phones and a limited area.

Ultimately, C-band will fill a crucial gap in Verizon’s and AT&T’s respective networks, but the January 19 launch day is just the start of a broader rollout. We’ll have to see how customers react to this additional service, which could deliver on 5G’s promise of bringing high speeds to consumers beyond major cities – or just be another small step in the slow evolution of the network after the 4G.

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