There are already a slew of 5G acronyms to remember, ranging from mmWave to 5G UC. And now there’s a new term to add to the mix: C-band 5G. So what’s the difference, and why does it matter?
5G’s newest flavor
Cellular services are delivered via radio waves by wireless carriers. Different cellular technologies, including various forms of 5G, use different bands of the radio wave frequency spectrum. High bands are used in mmWave, or millimetre-wave 5G, for example (24GHz-40GHz).
C-band is a portion of the radio wave frequency range as well. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) designated the 3.7GHz-4.2GHz frequency range as the C-Band in February 2020. The 3.7GHz-3.98GHz spectrum was allocated to mobile carriers for their 5G rollout out of this range.
As a result, C-band 5G refers to the deployment of fifth-generation cellular networks on this frequency spectrum. Despite its own name, the C-band frequency range is part of the 5G mid-band spectrum.
Why C-Band matters
In the US, mobile carriers are primarily deploying 5G in three frequency bands: high bands (mmWave), mid bands (1GHz-6GHz), and low bands (sub-1GHz).
While mmWave 5G is the fastest, with theoretical speeds of up to 10Gbps, its coverage is limited, and it has trouble penetrating obstacles such as walls, trees, rain, and other obstacles.
As a result, it’s only useful in densely populated areas with a clear line of sight to the 5G tower.
Low-band frequencies, on the other hand, can cover much greater distances, but data transmission speeds are only slightly faster than LTE. As a result, these frequencies are best suited for rural areas with low connectivity demand but need for long-distance coverage.
As a result, mid-band frequencies, including the C-band, provide an appealing compromise between the two. These frequencies can provide fast broadband connectivity and a wide coverage area. However, the mid-band spectrum is scarce and has already been reserved for other purposes.
Having said that, the FCC was able to carve out 280MHz of mid-band spectrum for 5G use, which was auctioned off as the C-band in 2020-2021. And the wireless carriers rushed to get it, spending over $81 billion to do so.
Mobile carriers intend to use this C-band spectrum to supplement their mmWave and low-band 5G deployments.
As a result, they’ll be able to offer a more reliable and fast 5G experience that isn’t limited to specific locations in major cities or only slightly faster than 4G LTE.
Overall, C-band 5G will strengthen 5G networks in urban and semi-urban areas by providing data transmission speeds of 250Mbps to 450Mbps and high network availability. To put it another way, it will finally make 5G worthwhile.
Carriers rolling out C-Band 5G
AT&T and Verizon will begin rolling out C-band 5G in the US in May 2022. Verizon refers to C-band 5G as 5G Ultra Wideband, whereas AT&T refers to it as part of its 5G+ service. For their mmWave 5G deployments, both carriers use the same marketing names.
In your phone’s status bar, look for the 5G UWB, 5G UW, or 5G+ symbol to see if you’re on a C-band or mmWave 5G network.
T-Mobile and US Cellular have also received C-band spectrum, but 5G deployment in these frequencies isn’t expected until late 2023 or 2024.
T-Mobile, which owns the most mid-band spectrum in the US, has already launched mid-band 5G on the 2.5GHz spectrum it received from Sprint. As a result, it is less reliant on the C-band than AT&T or Verizon. T-Mobile is still the leader in 5G availability and reach, even without C-band 5G.
5G Phones that support C-Band
Unfortunately, not all existing 5G phones support C-band 5G in the US; to support C-band frequencies, a phone must have the necessary hardware, firmware, and FCC approval.
To see if your phone supports C-band, look for n77 5G band support in the specifications. Even if the phone supports the n77 band, the carrier must provide appropriate firmware to enable it.
On AT&T and Verizon, some popular smartphones that support C-band 5G include:
- Apple iPhone 13 series
- Apple iPhone 12 series
- Google Pixel 6, Pixel 6 Pro
- Samsung Galaxy S22 series
- Samsung Galaxy S21 series
- Apple iPhone SE (2022)