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5G mmWave network advantage – How to measure it right

More than coverage or connected time, 5G mmWave should be measured by its ability to reduce the growing data strain placed on cellular networks.

Dec 15, 2021

Qualcomm products mentioned within this post are offered by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries.

5G mmWave is a revolutionary cellular technology, providing access to massive bandwidth and capacity available in frequency bands above 24 GHz.

Once deemed impossible by skeptics, 5G mmWave is now embraced by the wireless ecosystem and continues to gain momentum globally. For instance, in the U.S., all major operators offer 5G mmWave service as well as comprehensive lineups of the latest top-selling 5G flagship phones using mmWave. In Europe, nearly half of the countries in the European Union and the U.K. have allocated mmWave spectrum for 5G or have plans of doing so.

5G mmWave is impacting Asia too. In Japan, all mobile network operators now offer commercial 5G mmWave. In China, Qualcomm Technologies is working closely with ecosystem players in preparation for upcoming 5G mmWave trials. Commercial networks have launched in Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, and Taiwan. Additionally, networks supporting mmWave have been launched on the island continent of Australia.

And it’s not just the operators that are onboard with 5G mmWave; OEMs and device makers are also joining in. At the time of this writing, there are 130+ 5G mmWave devices announced from ~50 vendors, including phones, hotspots, CPEs, modules, PCs (GSA, Nov. ’21); Virtually all powered by Snapdragon mobile platforms.

Legacy methods of measuring wireless performance do not apply to 5G mmWave

The revolutionary nature of 5G mmWave poses a challenge for the mobile industry: What’s the best way to measure 5G mmWave performance and impact? Legacy metrics used with 3G and 4G are not at all insightful since 5G mmWave is a completely new technology. For instance, consider the traditional metrics used for 3G and 4G performance:

  • Area coverage – not highly relevant since high bandwidth and shorter propagation (versus sub6) make 5G mmWave suitable for localized capacity complementing sub6 (e.g., transit stations, downtown/high streets, shopping malls, airports, venues).
  • Population coverage – also not relevant because the majority of 5G mmWave base stations are going to be placed in high-demand spots where people ‘go through’ rather than where they reside (see parenthetical spots mentioned in Area coverage).
  • Percentage of connected or active time – a misleading metric because a burst of 5G mmWave traffic can be roughly 10-20x faster than sub6 and used only with applications requiring high throughput; therefore, this metric is expected to (and should) be low since mmWave can transfer required data more quickly.

A more accurate, relevant way of measuring 5G mmWave impact

More than coverage or connected time, the best way to measure the impact of 5G mmWave is by the amount of traffic that’s offloaded to 5G mmWave – similar to other capacity-oriented cellular technologies – such as small cells, LAA, and CBRS, which are designed to provide significant relief on cellular networks.

A recent analysis from Qualcomm Technologies Engineering Services Group (ESG), which advises and assists top global operators in complex cellular network deployments, shows the benefits of 5G mmWave by measuring traffic in areas where the technology has been deeply deployed.

One of those deeply deployed areas is downtown Chicago. Using Verizon1 traffic data, the team’s calculations show that 46 percent of the data traffic generated by 5G-capable devices is transmitted over mmWave bands (Figure 1) – an impressive figure considering that 20 percent of the operator device base is 5G smartphones2, and mmWave coverage in this area is focused on outdoor areas such as streets and parks (Figure 2). In fact, measurements at a street-by-street level (Figure 3) in a ~3.6 km2 area showed that mmWave coverage was available in 85-100 percent of the drive-test area, depending on the minimum power threshold4.

Figure 1
Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure 2 (Copyright Mapbox, Copyright OpenStreetMap)
Figure 3
Figure 3 (Map data Copyright 2021 Google)

Capacity offload to mmWave delivers richer user experiences

Following the above described methodology, the Engineering Services Group measured the impact of the availability of mmWave capacity and the ability to offload capacity to mmWave on the end user experience. Figure 4 shows how user experience (e.g., video streaming and file transfers) is impacted in 5G mmWave, 5G sub-6 GHz and LTE networks available in the test area.

Figure 4
Figure 4

Field measurement data (Figure 4) shows that when mmWave capacity is available, offloading traffic to the wider capacity helps achieve dramatically higher burst rates and average data rates with 5G mmWave, compared to 5G sub-6 GHz and LTE. For example, in the video streaming data set, 95 percent of the data bursts were observed to be carried over mmWave spectrum, resulting in 10.5x the burst rate with mmWave, compared to sub-6.

The analysis confirms the critical role of 5G mmWave for its intended purpose: deliver massive increases in localized capacity to address the ever-growing demand for data in key areas. In the areas covered by ESG’s analysis, 5G mmWave already offloads significant portions of the data traffic. That figure will only increase as the penetration of 5G mmWave-capable devices increase. Using traffic measurements rather than coverage or connected/active time is the key performance metric that evidences the importance of mmWave in the evolution of 5G.


Snapdragon is a product of Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries.
1. Based on average daily data volume for a mmW equipped urban cluster with estimated 20% 5G mmWave device penetration. 2. Verizon earnings call, Jul. ’21. 3. Measured with commercial 5G mmWave RF signal measurement equipment. 4. Above -115 dBm receive power observed in 85% of the drive-test area. Above -125 dBm receive power observed in 100% of the drive-test area.


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Nitin Dhiman

Director, Product Marketing, Qualcomm Technologies