I’ve decided to jot down a quick primer guide I can link to that (thoroughly) explains what LTE frequencies your phone should have in the United States, in the year 2019.
Here we go!
AT&T – AT&T uses LTE Bands 2/4/5/12/14/29/30/46*/66
Additionally, AT&T is testing a national roaming agreement with Verizon, so you will also want Band 13 on your phone too if you want to use all available Verizon roaming potential.
What each frequency does – LTE Bands 12 and 14 are AT&T’s extended range LTE frequency (700 MHz), as well as Band 5 (850 MHz). Bands 2 and 30 are their fastest frequencies, but with much shorter range. Band 29 is a speed enhancing band only. Band 4 midrange is preferred by the network and also nationwide. Band 66 is similar to Band 4, but regional.
What about Band 17? I see a lot of places that say I really need Band 17!
Band 17 was a subset of Band 12. It doesn’t exist anymore, though some phone debug screens will still refer to AT&T’s Band 12 coverage as Band 17. All Band 12 phones can work on AT&T’s network today, and older AT&T phones with Band 17 can also use AT&T’s Band 12 coverage.
However, it is important to note, that this doesn’t work the other way around. An AT&T Band 17 phone cannot work on, for example, T-Mobile Band 12. This is because T-Mobile’s Band 12 extends beyond the boundaries of Band 17.
The bottom line, if your phone says you have Band 12, you’re fine. If it says you only have Band 17 – and not Band 12 – it’s probably so old that you may not want to use it… as it’s probably missing out on other key frequencies too.
Is Band 14 exclusive to public safety and first responder devices?
The answer is simple: No. Band 14 was traded to AT&T in agreement to construct the FirstNet public safety network core. In some rare circumstances, Band 14 access could be reduced in a public safety emergency. Otherwise, consumers have the same access to Band 14 that every first responder has.
Also see the note about HPUE at the end of the article, related to LTE Band 14.
* Additionally, see the note about LAA (Band 46) at the end of this article.
Sprint – Sprint, except in Puerto Rico (see below), uses just three Bands: 25/26/41.
Band 25 is their oldest 1900 MHz high frequency spectrum (the “PCS” in Sprint PCS, if you were around back then). Band 26 is their extended-range SMR 800 MHz spectrum, acquired from their merger Nextel. Band 41 is their extremely fast LTE spectrum, partly acquired from their merger/acquisition of Clearwire.
However… Sprint has secured a five-year roaming deal with T-Mobile, which gives free roaming on their network. This is already live, and will continue in effect even if the merger fails.
For that reason, you are strongly encouraged to seek out a phone that also has T-Mobile bands 2/4/5/12/66/71.
See the note about HPUE at the end of the article…
Oh, and then there’s Puerto Rico… In the new Softbank Era, Sprint did manage to buy Open Mobile in Puerto Rico. While Verizon bought up all of LTE Band 13 onshore, Open Mobile (and now Sprint) controls LTE Band 13 in Puerto Rico. Meaning, if you want good LTE coverage in Puerto Rico on Sprint, you need to also have Band 13.
T-Mobile – As just mentioned above in the Sprint section, T-Mobile uses LTE Bands 2/4/5/12/66/71
This little carrier has the broadest, most diverse spectrum of them all. Band 71 is 600 MHz, the lowest, extended-range frequency of all four carriers – and is still being deployed nationwide. It could be awhile before Band 71 appears in your area, so you may want to confirm its presence before rushing out to buy a phone. But when available – it will greatly improve coverage.
As with other carriers, Band 66 is regional.
The remaining bands, 2/4/5/12 represent the bulk of T-Mobile nationwide coverage. Band 12 is their backbone extended range LTE.
You should also consider that if the Sprint merger is approved, Sprint roaming will likely become free even before the networks are combined. A savvy shopper may want to seek out a phone that also has Bands 25/
26/41, with a preference toward Band 41 (and HPUE) – as B41 will likely have the largest impact (as a speed boost) for T-Mobile users.
Brief Update: As part of the merger conditions announced by the Department of Justice, New T-Mobile will be required to divest Band 26 to Dish Network – should the merger go through. While you may get B26 roaming for some period… long term Dish will use the spectrum.
Verizon – Verizon uses Bands 2/4/5/13/46*/66
However… as mentioned above, Verizon is deploying a roaming deal with AT&T. So, you may want to also have Band 12 & 14 on your phone for better reception, and Bands 29 & 30 for faster speeds (when roaming). Verizon recently has begun adding those bands to their phones as an optional support – after years of locking out Band 12 on their devices.
Band 13 is right next door to Band 12 and represents all of Verizon’s extended range LTE, though as they shut down their CDMA network, Band 5 850 MHz coverage will become more useful. Band 5 can aggregate with Band 13, though Verizon does not currently allow both to be used simultaneously – this is likely to change after CDMA is shut down next year.
Bands 2 & 4 are Verizon’s fast lanes for speed, and Band 66 as mentioned a couple of times is regional, but can be Verizon’s least congested spectrum in areas that have it.
* Additionally, see the note about LAA (Band 46) at the end of this article.
What if I just want them all for fun?
All combined, US carriers use Bands 2/4/5/12/13/14/25/26/29/30/41/66/71
And then there’s LAA…
Additionally, all four carriers have committed to using LAA which is often labeled as Band 46.
LAA uses LTE over 5 GHz, typically used by modern 802.11 Wi-Fi. LAA will only be useful when there aren’t a lot of 5 GHz Wi-Fi interference (by default, LAA cell sites allow Wi-Fi signals to have priority).
LAA is in its infancy. It has to be deployed very close to where you are located (typically street-side). Only AT&T is using LAA aggressively as of mid-2019.
Should you get a phone with LAA? Ideally all phones will eventually “just have it” but generally my personal take is that it’s not very beneficial today. Your typical scenario for using LAA will be walking down a busy urban street as you casually pass by an LAA base station – a few minutes here and there. Though if you live in a very urban area, and do that daily… it can be beneficial.
What is HPUE? What does it have to do with Bands 14 & 41?
HPUE is a power enhancement. Basically, the power limits that apply to most LTE signals were re-evaluated, and were given permission to use more power than what is deemed safe and compatible for other LTE frequencies.
HPUE must be added to a phone/handset/modem by the manufacturer. There is no “setting” to turn it on or off for the user.
In Band 41’s case, Sprint spent millions lobbying for this. When Softbank decided not to invest in more lower-frequency spectrum, exhaustive efforts were done to improve Sprint’s reception. This led to Magic Box hardware, and HPUE “technology” in handsets and modems.
LTE Band 14 also has HPUE available. It was added as part of Band 14’s emphasis on safety (but as noted above, consumers can use it too). However, it is less beneficial, because Band 14 is much lower frequency spectrum – it is much less likely to make a signal viable, but may enhance the speed of a fringe-viable signal.
There are some arguments that HPUE is not necessary at all. Some devices like the standard Moto G6, which lacks HPUE, have been tested to perform nearly as well as variants that have HPUE, like the (ironically lower-end) Moto G6 Play. The G6 Play was sold on Sprint retail channels, and Sprint pushed Lenovo to add HPUE to the Play variant. However, it didn’t make a huge difference.
Other phones like Essential Phone PH-1 tend to have weaker Band 41 performance, and probably would have benefited greatly had HPUE been built into the phone.
Ideally, a manufacturer will note HPUE support in their specifications, next to Band 14 and 41. From my experience, Lenovo has been the best at this, though no manufacturer today officially has said they are using HPUE on Band 14. It may be they are and just aren’t promoting it, as most people think Band 41 is where all the HPUE action is.
End of the day, deciding to get HPUE or not may make a large difference, but it also may not if your device maker is very skilled at radio antenna design. Think of it as added assurance you’re getting the most powerful signal possible.
One more question, what’s MFBI and why do I see it sometimes in service info?
Not totally related to the original question, but I get it a lot. MFBI stands for Multi-frequency Band Interface. The good news is, you don’t need to buy anything involving it.
Basically, it’s just a way of the network optimizing how it feeds signal to phones, when two signals it broadcasts are right next to each other – or in some cases – overlapping.
The one thing that makes MFBI “stand out” is that it can trick your phone into reporting a frequency other than what you are using. The most common is where MFBI will cause a phone to report that it is using Band 66, when in fact it is using Band 4. This will help you understand why your phone may report it is using Band 66, even if a carrier doesn’t have a Band 66 license in your particular area.
What’s Band 48 and why aren’t you mentioning it?
Band 48, also known as CBRS, stands for Citizens Broadcast Radio Service. I don’t mention it because no wireless carrier is using it yet. Verizon has filed petitions to deploy it however.
The main reason I don’t mention CBRS is that it works very similar to LAA. CBRS has two portions, a licensed slice and an unlicensed slice (about 50/50). The licensed portion is meant for WISPs and small business internet systems to be able to use LTE and LAA-like technologies for wireless broadband.
Very, very few non-niche devices support B48 today. And it is not likely that you will get a huge speed bump from it for years to come.
Why do the wireless carriers want to use the unlicensed portion of B48? That’s debatable. The least generous argument would be that the carriers will be selling 5G home internet services, in direct competition with WISPs. Every bit of interference the carriers can make on Band 48, thwarts competition without running afoul of any antitrust laws.
The most generous argument you can make is that it helps augment LTE when 5G small cells are deployed by using all available spectrum the carrier. The true reason, as with all things, lies somewhere in between the two.