This is why T-Mobile made such great 5G availability progress in 2020

This is why T-Mobile made such great 5G availability progress in 2020
Undeterred by the coronavirus pandemic that made its network upgrading and expansion work much more difficult than in a "normal" year, T-Mobile had an absolutely blockbuster 2020. The "Un-carrier" managed to surpass AT&T's subscriber numbers just a few months after completing its long-in-the-works Sprint acquisition, spending the rest of the year trying (and mostly succeeding) to close the gap to Verizon with the help of killer deals, affordable plans, and perhaps most importantly, huge 5G improvements.

While T-Mo's rapid mid-band deployments across the country attracted by far the largest amount of attention from both the media and regular consumers, there was at least one other major breakthrough that made a whole bunch of headlines a little over six months ago.

We're talking about Magenta's world-first nationwide standalone 5G network launch, which purportedly expanded the operator's already towering 5G coverage by 30 percent at the flick of a switch. 

Of course, T-Mobile was touting the theoretical coverage of its 5G signal when claiming nearly 250 million people in over 7,500 cities and towns across a total of 1.3 million square miles had access to the next-gen cellular service as of August 2020, although an in-depth new report seems to confirm the real-world availability jump made possible by this rollout was indeed pretty drastic.

Rural areas got the biggest upgrade

In case you were wondering, there's a good reason why T-Mobile chose to celebrate its groundbreaking standalone 5G deployment with a magenta-colored drone show in Lisbon, North Dakota rather than, say, Los Angeles or New York City. Unlike mid-band upgrades or mmWave 5G rollouts, this particular development was aimed specifically at rural areas and small towns like Lisbon, which received a massive (and sudden) 5G availability boost.

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Just one month after August 4, the time spent by T-Mo users connected to 5G had increased from 24.5 to 28.1 percent in the rural areas canvassed by OpenSignal, while the same important network indicator gained a solid 3.1 percentage points of its own across urban areas.


Interestingly, the rural numbers continued to grow at a steady pace over the following four months, unlike Magenta's urban 5G availability, which merely gained an additional 1.5 percent. Overall, T-Mobile's standalone 5G launch did pretty much what the "Un-carrier" promised it would do, significantly widening its network net across the nation.

Apart from rapidly improving coverage, reduced latency was promoted as another key benefit of the standalone 5G technology, and according to the newest OpenSignal tests, T-Mobile delivered in that department as well. 5G latency (or network responsiveness) was substantially upgraded in both urban and rural areas, vastly improving things like multiplayer mobile gaming, real-time communications, and overall web browsing experiences.

5G SA download speeds don't look so hot... for now

While the ultimate goal of standalone access (SA) 5G service is to become ubiquitous, this needs to co-exist with non-standalone access (NSA) technologies for the foreseeable future, which is actually for the best.

That's because NSA 5G speeds remain vastly superior to their SA counterparts for the most part due largely to current limitations in many 5G-enabled smartphones. These essentially forced T-Mobile to keep its initial standalone 5G rollout exclusive to slower low-band spectrum.

But most 2021 handsets capable of tapping into 5G networks are expected to support low and mid-band carrier aggregation, which should allow Magenta to close the speed gap between its SA and NSA signals. As things stand, it might seem more beneficial for users who value download speeds above all to connect to non-standalone 5G than standalone 5G. Of course, the very purpose of the 5G SA launch was to cover more ground than it was possible using NSA technology.

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By the way, Verizon and AT&T are still working on their own standalone 5G deployments, which are likely to take place sometime this year as the two carriers continue to scramble in their messy attempts at catching up to the new US wireless infrastructure leader.

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