Ookla's report on global 5G speeds ranks United States 5G networks number one in the world for 5G availability, more than doubling the performance of networks in China, Canada, and almost the entire continent of Europe. This is an encouraging sign ahead of January 19th, the date when AT&T and Verizon will begin activating the high-capacity C-Band spectrum that should substantially boost U.S. 5G network speeds. But it also highlights the need to free more spectrum for 5G.
Ookla defines 5G availability as the "percent of users on 5G-capable devices [who] spent the majority of their time on 5G," and the United States sits atop the world at 49.2%. This means that roughly half of all 5G device users in the U.S. had 5G connections during a majority of their time on wireless networks. China (20.1%), Canada (23.7%), Japan (7.6%), and the vast majority of European countries are far behind the U.S. on 5G availability, with only Netherlands (45.3%) and South Korea (43.8%) posting comparable availability above 40%.
The report also highlights that the U.S. lags behind other countries in median 5G speeds, but this is partly a function of spectrum policy and should be improved by fast-approaching carrier deployments of C-Band spectrum and other mid-band frequencies like the recently concluded 3.45 GHz auction. So far, U.S. 5G networks have largely relied on low-band spectrum for nationwide 5G deployment and high-band spectrum in certain dense urban settings. Mid-band spectrum, such as C-band spectrum and other nearby frequencies, has the combination of high-capacity and propagation over distances that leads to nationwide fast speeds.
Deployment of C-Band spectrum and other mid-band frequencies will also improve 5G speeds by densifying networks so a higher number of base stations each support fewer customers. The FCC should take additional actions to free mid-band spectrum for commercial use, such as setting a date for the 2.5 GHz auction and announcing auctions in additional bands, so U.S. 5G networks improve their speed ranking.
But the report also highlights that widespread 5G availability in the U.S. is in some ways more important than posting the fastest speeds. For example, Norway ranks second among countries for median 5G download speeds at 426.75 Mbps, but its availability is a mere 8.4%. This means 91.6% of Norwegians spend less than half their time on 5G when connected to wireless networks. This fact suggests that Norway's and other low-availability countries' top speed rankings are paper tigers – their 5G is fast but rarely used in real life. U.S. consumers are experiencing 5G far more often, and at high speeds, like the 160.41 Mbps median 5G speed Ookla measured in our nation's capital.
The United States' first place ranking for global 5G availability in Ookla's report is welcome news. The FCC should continue to act – especially by auctioning more mid-band spectrum – so the U.S. can also claim a top global ranking for speeds.