If you own a 5G-enabled smartphone, which all the best phones these days are, there’s a good chance you’ve seen different 5G network icons appearing in your status bar. It’s a stark contrast to the pre-5G days when your phone would display “4G” or “LTE” no matter where you went.
It can be a bit confusing to see a 5G indicator one moment and then “5G UC” or “5G UW” the next. It’s not something you need to worry too much about, as you usually don’t have much control over it, but it’s still helpful to understand what these different symbols mean and why they’re important.
The humble beginnings of 5G
The world of 5G technology is a bit more complicated than previous 4G/LTE and 3G networks, as it covers a much wider range of frequencies. While earlier cellular technologies also ran on multiple frequencies, they generally stayed in the same ballpark.
For example, 3G and 4G/LTE services typically run in the 600 MHz (0.6 GHz) to 1.9 GHz spectrum. Some implementations went a bit beyond that, up to 2.3 GHz on AT&T and 2 .5 GHz on Sprint, but they were less common.
By comparison, 5G runs the gamut, from the same low-band spectrum used by 4G/LTE to the extremely high frequency (EHF) spectrum from 27 GHz to 39 GHz, and all indications are that newer 5G deployments could go even beyond.
Combined with advances promoted by 5G technology, these additional blocks of spectrum offer unique advantages and disadvantages. These were not a factor in 4G/LTE network deployments, as they all used the same low-band spectrum.
Simply put, lower frequencies offer significantly better range and coverage than higher frequencies, but don’t offer as much capacity or bandwidth. If you’ve ever tried to set up a Wi-Fi router in your home, you may have already encountered this on a smaller scale: 2.4GHz Wi-Fi travels farther and penetrates solid objects more effectively than Wi-Fi. -5GHz Fi, but it’s not that fast and can’t handle as many devices.
Radio frequencies have always been a limited resource. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) assigns and licenses spectrum to each operator. The big three carriers, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon, have always competed for position to get enough spectrum for their needs, but most of those licenses for the lower-band frequencies used by 3G and 4G/LTE were issued years ago. .
Five years ago, T-Mobile and AT&T began their rollouts using this already licensed low-band spectrum for 5G. Verizon went in the opposite direction, betting on the much higher 5G mmWave spectrum that could deliver incredible speeds at very limited ranges.
T-Mobile was the first carrier to have 5G coverage in all 50 US states, but it did so by using low-band 600 MHz frequencies, which reach everywhere but don’t offer much bandwidth anywhere. compared to older 4G/LTE technologies. . Still, it turned out to be a smart choice, as T-Mobile was able to light up the 5G icon on many more of its customers’ smartphones; by contrast, Verizon’s decision to focus on mmWave 5G left 99% of its customer base stuck with older 4G/LTE services.
How 5G UC started
As the potential of 5G to revolutionize global communications became more apparent, the FCC began reallocating and opening up new mid-range spectrum capable of handling more 5G traffic and delivering faster speeds.
This started a new turf war between the carriers. Not only did they have to bid to get their hands on the new spectrum, they also had to deploy it faster to beat their rivals in building better 5G services in the hope of attracting more customers.
Simply offering better 5G services was not enough. Carriers had to make sure their customers knew they were getting the best possible speed and coverage. This led to each operator developing their own brand of enhanced 5G. After rushing with its deceptive 5G E network, which wasn’t really 5G at all, AT&T went with 5G Plus (5G+) for its actual 5G network. Meanwhile, Verizon used 5G Ultra Wideband (5G UW) and T-Mobile called its enhanced network 5G Ultra Capacity (5G UC).
So what exactly is 5G UC?
5G Ultra Capacity is T-Mobile’s brand for its 5G mid-band and high-band network, which operates primarily on 2.5 GHz frequencies, with 24–39 GHz for additional capacity in some denser areas. This differs from T-Mobile’s extended range 5G, which works exclusively on the lower 600 MHz frequencies.
This enhanced 5G service is represented on most smartphones by a “5G UC” icon, though this is not always the case; Since the mobile phone’s operating system must support the icon, you may not see it if you are using an older iPhone or Android device. If your phone supports the 5G UC icon, then a plain 5G icon indicates that you are using the slower extended range 5G.
This enhanced 5G service is represented on most smartphones with a “5G UC” icon.
T-Mobile’s enhanced 5G branding also came later than its rivals. While Verizon began offering a 5G UW icon with the launch of the first 5G-enabled iPhone lineup in late 2020, T-Mobile didn’t offer its custom icon until a year later, starting with iOS 15 in September 2021 and then later. expanding to other smartphones as Android updates with the new icon roll out.
Keep in mind that T-Mobile’s 5G Ultra Capacity network started much earlier; it just took longer to add a custom icon to it. Even before September 2021, many T-Mobile customers were still taking advantage of enhanced 5G services, they just didn’t have a special icon to display it.
Some of the carriers also have branding for their lower-band, unenhanced 5G services: Verizon is 5G Nationwide, while T-Mobile uses “5G Extended Range.” Only AT&T uses plain “5G,” which fits since their upgraded network is called “5G Plus.”
A mix of midrange and C band
Although each operator uses unique brand names for their enhanced 5G services, they all mean essentially the same thing. When they appear, they indicate that your device is using the fastest 5G Midband and Highband frequencies.
What is somewhat ironic is that T-Mobile’s 5G UC brand came much later than Verizon and AT&T, as T-Mobile had a good head start on its rivals; its midband 5G network was up and running for well over a year before the others could even power up their first midband 5G towers.
The FCC auctioned off the first new mid-band spectrum, dubbed C-band, in early 2021. This covered the 3.7 to 3.98 GHz range and proved somewhat controversial due to its proximity to aircraft frequencies. As a result, even after spending billions of dollars to acquire this spectrum, AT&T and Verizon found their plans thwarted as they had to deal with fears from the aviation industry.
Meanwhile, T-Mobile had an ace up its sleeve. Thanks to its 2020 merger with Sprint, it was able to obtain licenses for the 2.5GHz spectrum that the other carrier had used for its 4G/LTE deployments and some of its early 5G networks. T-Mobile wasted no time taking down these Sprint towers and repurposing that spectrum; officially launched its 5G Ultra Capacity network in Philadelphia just three weeks after the merger closed.
While 5G Ultra Capacity still runs primarily on the 2.5GHz frequencies, it also throws some higher mmWave frequencies into the mix, specifically the n258, n260, and n261 bands, which cover 24GHz, 39GHz, and 28GHz, respectively. .
Unlike Verizon, however, T-Mobile primarily uses them to provide coverage in places like stadiums, concert halls, and airports, where a large number of subscribers are more likely to congregate. For T-Mobile, mmWave is about capacity, not speed; the operator has more creative ways to achieve multi-gigabit speeds using longer range midband frequencies.
T-Mobile also paid $9.3 billion to acquire 3.7 GHz C-band spectrum in the 2021 auction. This has yet to go live, but the carrier plans to use this additional spectrum to enhance its core 2-band coverage. .5 GHz in denser population centers, as higher frequencies offer more capacity without sacrificing much range.
More recently, the operator has also repurposed some of the older 1.9 GHz PCS spectrum for its 5G UC network. These frequencies were used for 2G and 3G services by T-Mobile’s predecessor, VoiceStream Wireless PCS, and were retained for backwards compatibility. However, as we say goodbye to the latest 3G networks, these frequencies are being freed up for 5G use.
Today, T-Mobile has ultra-capacity 5G coverage for more than 260 million people, more than 75% of the US population. The carrier plans to expand that to 300 million by the end of 2023.
How 5G UC stacks up against the competition
The numbers above mean that T-Mobile customers are much more likely to see a 5G UC icon on their phones than Verizon and AT&T customers.
Verizon’s original 5G Ultra Wideband network included only mmWave coverage, and getting a 5G UW icon was like panning for gold. However, in early 2022, Verizon finally got the go-ahead to activate C-band spectrum, which it had spent $45 billion to acquire. This became part of its 5G UW network, expanding the coverage of that service to 100 million people in 1,700 cities. Before that, 5G UW was limited to the core downtown areas of some 82 cities.
AT&T has taken a considerably slower and more conservative approach, rolling out its 5G Plus service to only a handful of cities. It seems that AT&T may simply be biding its time; While it dropped $23 billion in the initial 2021 C-band auction, it also got a less controversial slice of the pie: 40MHz of spectrum in the 3.45–3.55GHz range that won’t make the aviation industry nervous. It’s expected to start taking advantage of that sometime this year.
However, T-Mobile still has a huge lead, thanks to its two-year head start and its aggressive stance on rolling out 5G services. To be clear, it’s not that T-Mobile’s network offers inherently faster performance; Download speeds are likely to be the same whether you’re on T-Mobile’s 5G UC or Verizon’s 5G UW, rather T-Mobile has four times the coverage.
Statistically, this drives the carrier’s scores up dramatically when it comes to average download speeds across the country – it’s the leading carrier by a healthy margin in 46 states. However, there is more to this than just statistics; T-Mobile customers are much more likely to stay on the carrier’s 5G UC network and therefore enjoy these faster 5G speeds much more often than Verizon and AT&T customers.