From mmWave until 5G UC, there are already several 5G-related monikers to keep track of. And now cellular carriers have thrown another term into the mix: C-band 5G. So how is it different, and why does it matter?
Latest flavor of 5G
Wireless carriers use radio waves to provide cellular services. Various cellular technologies, including the various forms of 5G, use different parts of the radio wave’s frequency range, called bands. For example, the mmWave or millimeter wave 5G uses high bands (24GHz-40GHz).
Likewise, the C band is also part of the radio wave frequency range. In February 2020, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has determined that the frequency range from 3.7 GHz to 4.2 GHz will become known as the C-Band. Outside of this range, the 3.7GHz-3.98GHz spectrum was allocated to the mobile carriers for their 5G rollout.
So, C-band 5G essentially refers to the deployment of fifth-generation mobile networks on this frequency spectrum. Although C-band has its own name, the frequency range falls under the mid-band 5G spectrum.
Why is C-Band important?
Cellular carriers mainly use three frequency bands for 5G deployment in the United States: high bands (mmWave), medium bands (1GHz-6GHz), and low bands (sub-1GHz). While mmWave 5G is the fastest and theoretically capable of reaching up to 10 Gbps speeds, the coverage is limited and it struggles to penetrate obstacles such as walls, trees, rain and more. So it is only useful in densely populated urban areas where you have a direct view of the 5G tower.
On the other hand, low-band frequencies can reach much greater distances, but their data transmission rates are relatively low, only slightly better than LTE† As a result, these frequencies are best suited to rural areas, where demand for connectivity is low, but coverage over longer distances is required.
So mid-band frequencies, including the C-band, offer an attractive compromise between the two. These frequencies can provide fast broadband connections and a decent coverage area. However, the midband spectrum is hard to find and has already been allocated for other uses.
That said, FCC was able to break up 280MHz of the midband spectrum for 5G use, which: went for the auction as the C-band in 2020-2021. And the wireless carriers started clamoring for it, spending over $81 billion to acquire it.
Mobile carriers plan to use this C-band spectrum to complement their mmWave and low-band 5G deployments. As a result, they can provide a more reliable and faster 5G experience that is not limited to specific locations in key cities or just incrementally faster than 4G LTE.
Overall, C-band 5G will bolster 5G networks in urban and semi-urban areas with typical data transmission rates ranging from 250 Mbps to 450 Mbps and good network availability. In short, it will finally make 5G worthwhile.
Which providers are rolling out C-Band 5G?
As of May 2022, AT&T and Verizon roll out C-band 5G in the United States. While AT&T C-band is marketing 5G as part of its 5G+ service, Verizon calls it 5G Ultra Wideband. Both providers also use the same marketing names for their mmWave 5G implementations.
You can tell if you’re on a C-band or mmWave 5G network by looking for the 5G UWB, 5G UW, or 5G+ symbol in your phone’s status bar.
T-Mobile and US Cellular have also acquired C-band spectrum, but their 5G rollout in these frequencies is not expected until late 2023 or 2024. That said, T-Mobile, which has most of the mid-band spectrum in the US, has already rolled out mid-band 5G on the 2.5GHz spectrum it received from Sprint. So it’s not as dependent on the C-band as AT&T or Verizon. And even without C-band 5G, T-Mobile remains leading in Availability and range of 5G†
Do all 5G phones support C-Band?
Unfortunately, not all existing 5G phones support C-band 5G. For US C-band 5G, a phone needs the necessary hardware to support C-band frequencies, firmware that enables them, and FCC approval.
You can search for n77 5G band support in your phone’s specs to confirm if it has C band support. However, even with n77 band support, the phone needs the correct carrier firmware to enable it.
Some popular smartphones that support C-band 5G on both AT&T and Verizon are:
C-band has the potential to change the 5G landscape in the long term. It gives mobile carriers the opportunity to offer the mid-band 5G, the most practical 5G for users, widely across the country. In addition, with the availability of C-band, all three major wireless carriers in the US now have access to low-band, mid-band and high-band 5G frequencies, allowing them to mix and match spectrums for the best possible 5G experience.