You're not the only one who has been wondering what 5G UC on your phone means. 5G UC, to put it simply, is the "Ultra Capacity" 5G network offered by T-Mobile. Stated differently, this indicates that you are connected to T-Mobile's 5G network. Concurrently, you might have also learned about Verizon's 5G UW, a comparable network technology.
Ultimately, being on the 5G UC network should mean you are receiving some of the best speeds possible. But, if you don’t have a solid grasp of what 5G is and how these networks operate, you may not get the most out of your phone. Here’s what you need to know about the 5G UC icon and how to use it best to benefit you.
T-Mobile’s 5G UC
T-Mobile was the first carrier to boast 5G coverage in all 50 U.S. states, but it accomplished this by using low-band 600MHz frequencies, which reach far and wide but don’t offer a lot of bandwidth compared to older 4G/LTE technologies. Still, that 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.
However, as the potential for 5G to revolutionize global communications became more apparent, the FCC began to reallocate and open up some new midrange spectrum capable of handling more 5G traffic and delivering faster speeds. This started a new turf war between the carriers. They not only had to bid to get their hands on the new spectrum but also had to deploy it more quickly to beat out their rivals in building better 5G services in hopes of attracting more customers. This led to each carrier developing its own brand of enhanced 5G. T-Mobile called their enhanced network 5G Ultra Capacity (5G UC), which is why you see the symbol on your smart phone today.
So, exactly what is 5G UC?
5G Ultra Capacity is T-Mobile’s brand name for its mid-band and high-band 5G network, which mostly runs on 2.5GHz frequencies, with 24–39GHz used for extra capacity in some denser areas. This differs from T-Mobile’s Extended Range 5G, which runs exclusively on the lowest 600MHz frequencies.
This enhanced 5G service is represented on most smartphones by a “5G UC” icon, although that’s not always the case; since the mobile phone’s operating system has to support the icon, you may not see it if you’re using an older iPhone or Android device. If your phone does support the 5G UC icon, then an unadorned 5G icon indicates you’re using the slower Extended Range 5G.
This enhanced 5G service is represented on most smartphones by a “5G UC” icon.
Improved 5G branding for T-Mobile debuted later than those of its competitors. Verizon launched the first 5G-capable iPhone range in late 2020, and with it, the 5G UW icon. T-Mobile, on the other hand, waited a year to launch its unique icon, launching iOS 15 in September 2021 and then rolling it out to other smartphones as new Android upgrades with the icon.
It should be noted that T-Mobile launched their 5G Ultra Capacity network somewhat earlier; the creation of a unique emblem for it took longer. Many T-Mobile users were already benefiting from upgraded 5G services prior to September 2021; they simply lacked a unique emblem to indicate it.
Additionally, a few of the carriers have names associated with their non-enhanced 5G services in lower bands: T-Mobile offers "5G Extended Range," whereas Verizon offers "5G Nationwide." Only AT&T utilises standard "5G," which makes sense given that "5G Plus" refers to its upgraded network.A mix of mid-range and C-band
The upgraded 5G services offered by the carriers have different names, but they all basically mean the same thing. They show that your device is using the faster 5G high-band and mid-band frequencies when they show up.
What’s somewhat ironic is that T-Mobile’s 5G UC branding came so much later than Verizon’s and AT&T’s, as T-Mobile had a healthy head start over its rivals; its mid-band 5G network was in place well over a year before the others could even switch on their first mid-band 5G towers. It was able to obtain licences for the 2.5GHz spectrum that the other carrier had utilised for its 4G/LTE deployments and portions of its early 5G networks because of its 2020 merger with Sprint. After the acquisition was finalised, T-Mobile moved quickly to decommission these Sprint towers and repurpose that spectrum, formally launching its 5G Ultra Capacity network in Philadelphia within three weeks.
Although the majority of 5G Ultra Capacity's frequency range is still 2.5GHz, it also incorporates higher millimetre wave frequencies, namely bands n258, n260, and n261, which correspond to 24GHz, 39GHz, and 28GHz, respectively.
But unlike Verizon, T-Mobile mostly employs these to offer coverage in places where a lot of customers are likely to congregate, such stadiums, music halls, and airports. T-Mobile views mmWave as more about capacity than speed because it can achieve multi-gigabit rates through more inventive means, such as the use of longer-range mid-band frequencies.
T-Mobile also paid $9.3 billion to acquire some 3.7GHz C-band spectrum in the 2021 auction. This hasn’t gone live yet, but the carrier plans to use this additional spectrum to enhance its primary 2.5GHz coverage in denser population centers since the higher frequencies offer more capacity without sacrificing too much range.
For its 5G UC network, the carrier has also more recently repurposed some older 1.9GHz PCS airwaves. VoiceStream Wireless PCS, the precursor of T-Mobile, used these frequencies for 2G and 3G services; they were kept around for backward compatibility. But as we say goodbye to the final 3G networks, these frequencies are becoming available for usage with 5G.
Today, T-Mobile boasts Ultra Capacity 5G coverage for over 260 million people — over 75% of the U.S. population. The carrier plans to expand that to 300 million by the end of 2023.
5G UC vs 5G UW
The above numbers mean that T-Mobile’s customers are much more likely to see a 5G UC icon on their phones than Verizon and AT&T customers.
Only mmWave coverage was available on Verizon's initial 5G Ultra Wideband network, so obtaining a 5G UW symbol was like striking it lucky. Nevertheless, Verizon received approval to activate the C-band spectrum it had paid $45 billion to purchase in early 2022. This was integrated into their 5G UW network, bringing the service's coverage to 1,700 cities and 100 million people. Prior to that, 5G UW was restricted to the central business districts of roughly 82 cities.
Due to its much slower and more cautious approach, AT&T has only expanded the availability of its 5G Plus service to a small number of cities. While AT&T lost $23 billion in the first 2021 C-band auction, it also won a less contentious 40MHz of spectrum in the 3.45–3.55GHz band, which wouldn't worry the aviation sector. It appears that AT&T is just biding its time. It is anticipated that it will start utilising that later this year.
Still, T-Mobile has a significant advantage because of its proactive approach towards the rollout of 5G services and its two-year head start. To be clear, T-Mobile's network doesn't necessarily perform better; you should expect to have similar download speeds on T-Mobile's 5G UC and Verizon's 5G UW. Instead, T-Mobile delivers four times the coverage.
According to statistics, this significantly raises the carrier's rankings in terms of average download speeds across the country; in 46 states, it leads by a significant margin. Beyond just numbers, though, T-Mobile users are far more likely than Verizon and AT&T users to remain on the carrier's 5G UC network and so take use of these fastest 5G speeds.
Verizon just took a huge leap ahead in the 5G race
Following a year or two of consistent increase in 5G performance among the three largest U.S. carriers, things appeared to plateau in 2023, with reports indicating just small gains per quarter.
But it appears that in the final three months of the year, the underdogs made significant progress. Verizon and AT&T reported 5G speed increases of more than 20% from the previous quarter, according to Ookla's most recent market data. As a result, Verizon’s lead over T-Mobile has been considerably reduced.
That’s not to say that T-Mobile doesn’t still command a healthy lead. The “Un-carrier” also saw a measurable increase in 5G speeds compared to the last time, but there’s little doubt that Verizon is starting to catch up.
Verizon closes the gap
While T-Mobile’s numbers mostly plateaued last year, rivals Verizon and AT&T showed a burst of growth over the summer that now appears to have been more than a one-off.
T-Mobile levelled off after surpassing the 200Mbps mark in January, with just slight increases from 216.56Mbps in April's report, which covered the first quarter of 2023, to 221.57Mbps in October.
T-Mobile achieved 5G speeds in the first half of 2023 that were 65–70% faster than those of its nearest competitor, Verizon. But in the third quarter, the difference shrank dramatically, falling to 44% as Verizon reported a 15% rise in speeds from 133.50Mbps to 153.79Mbps.
It seems that this was not an isolated incident. According to Ookla's most recent data, Verizon has advanced even farther in the fourth quarter, reaching median 5G speeds of 196.43Mbps, which puts the provider just shy of the 200Mbps mark. We haven't seen speed increases like that since the carrier launched its faster C-band network in early 2022. That is a startling 27.73% boost in performance. Additionally, it's almost twice as big as the October jump.
More significantly, this puts Verizon closer to T-Mobile than it’s ever been in the history of the 5G speed race. While T-Mobile also saw a nearly 8% increase in performance, moving the needle up to 238.87Mbps from its year of relatively flat 200Mbps numbers, Verizon’s jump means it now only commands a 21.6% lead. If this trend continues, we could see Verizon catching up by the end of this year.
AT&T isn’t standing still
While Verizon is now in a very solid second place, AT&T also saw some healthy gains, continuing its growth at a more steady pace. The third-place carrier broke the 100Mbps barrier for the first time in October after an 18% jump from 86.01Mbps in the second quarter to 101.55Mbps in the third.
While it’s not scaling up its growth quite the same way Verizon has, AT&T still gained nearly 24% in speeds in the last quarter of 2023, putting it at 125Mbps. To put that in context, that’s not far off from the 127.95Mbps speeds that Verizon was boasting at this time last year.
Better coverage is leading to faster speeds
If T-Mobile doesn't make any major strides in 5G technology, Verizon and AT&T will inevitably catch up as they continue to extend their mid-band 5G networks.
After all, it’s not that raw 5G speeds are increasing. The numbers in these reports are median speeds across the United States, which means they don’t reflect maximum 5G performance in any single area — and they certainly don’t represent the best 5G speeds that each carrier has to offer.
The median values illustrate the extent to which midband 5G networks have spread; as more people are able to use the quickest 5G speeds instead of being stuck on the far slower low-band 5G networks that were first employed to deliver countrywide 5G, these numbers rise.
T-Mobile has a significant advantage in this area, which has contributed to the higher scores it has continuously received over the previous few years. T-Mobile was able to deploy a sizable portion of mid-band spectrum rather rapidly as a result of its 2020 merger with Sprint. In the end, this developed into its 5G Ultra Capacity (5G UC) network, which served over 200 million T-Mobile users more than a year before Verizon and AT&T were able to obtain comparable spectrum.
However, T-Mobile’s relative lack of growth throughout most of 2023 showed that it’s reached peak 5G coverage. That wasn’t surprising as the carrier had promised its 5G UC network would cover over 300 million people, or 90% of the U.S. population, by the end of 2023. The most recent 7% increase is likely the result of that final burst of expansion.
Conversely, AT&T and Verizon have significantly greater space for expansion. Verizon declared at the beginning of 2023 that over 200 million people had access to its speedier 5G Ultra Wideband (5G UW) network, and the company was making significant efforts to expand its 5G UW network into rural regions.
Verizon's efforts seem to have paid off, and although T-Mobile is now developing cutting-edge 5G technologies like six-carrier aggregation, it appears that Verizon might catch up sooner than anticipated.
But according to another part of Ookla's research, customers of Verizon and AT&T might not have it all that well. Overall median download speeds, which are determined by combining data from 4G/LTE and 5G networks, reveal a distinct picture even though median 5G speeds are generally higher than they have ever been.
Specifically, Verizon and AT&T still fall significantly behind T-Mobile, with median download speeds coming in at less than half of the 188.96Mbps median speeds that T-Mobile’s customers are seeing.
Verizon and AT&T are roughly tied here, at 91.62Mbps and 90.82Mbps, respectively. This significant gap between those 5G speeds and overall speeds suggests that more Verizon and AT&T customers are finding themselves on 4G/LTE networks in places where 5G coverage isn’t available.
To put it another way, even though Verizon and AT&T are quickly expanding their midband 5G networks, it doesn't appear like they are doing anything to improve access to even low-band 5G service in underserved areas. Since over 98% of Americans are covered by T-Mobile's low-band Extended Range 5G network, it is not unexpected that consumers of the company are more likely to find 5G coverage wherever they travel.
The numbers by state
In the end, where you live will determine how well your cellular network performs. The likelihood that you will receive the fastest speeds available from each carrier is indicated by the median download speeds, but they don't provide all the information.
The good news is that Ookla breaks down performance numbers by state and major U.S. cities. While it’s perhaps unsurprising, considering its overall increase, Verizon now comes out on top in the second-fastest state of North Dakota, which also saw a jump from its seventh-place 97Mbps score in October.
In fact, the ten fastest U.S. states have all blown past the 100Mbps line for the first time, with significant speed increases across the board. Illinois remains on top after taking first place last quarter, but it also jumped from 110Mbps to 138.89Mbps overall and 199.47Mbps on T-Mobile.
That’s followed by North Dakota, which was vaulted to second place by Verizon, clocking in at 129.73Mbps across all carriers but 192.33Mbps for Verizon customers in that state.
Previously ranked third, the District of Columbia fell to sixth, but not for want of effort. There was nevertheless a speed improvement from 100.83Mbps to 124.9Mbps, and T-Mobile customers in D.C. experienced the greatest download speeds of any state at 242.56Mbps. Still, Minnesota, which fell from second to fourth, managed to surpass D.C. After falling out of the top ten in October, Rhode Island also made a tremendous return to take third place, and Nevada became the first state to join the elite speed club by placing fifth.
What’s even more significant is that the top 16 states with the fastest median download speeds all scored higher than the fastest state in October’s report. Pennsylvania was in 16th place at 111.7Mbps, putting it slightly ahead of Illinois’ 110.08 Mbps October score. In total, median download speeds of over 100Mbps were measured in 26 U.S. states.
While Verizon’s win in North Dakota is remarkable, it’s also been a hotly contested state for overall download speeds, often flipping between T-Mobile, Verizon, and undecided. There’s little doubt that Verizon’s growth propelled it to second place, but it’s also the only state that Verizon took. T-Mobile came out ahead in 46 states and the District of Columbia, while regional carrier GCI reclaimed the top spot in Alaska, and South Dakota and Vermont were both too close to call. However, undecided states Maine and Montana flipped to T-Mobile this time.
This time, there was less movement in the city rankings. The top two cities, Glendale, Arizona, and Plano, Texas, held their positions, while St. Paul, Minneapolis, moved up to fourth place, dislodging Indianapolis, Indiana. Every city on the list experienced a significant speed boost, with the top six surpassing 200Mbps, similar to the state results. The top 17 cities all exceeded their October speeds, with Glendale increasing from 181.74Mbps to 224.51Mbps. Columbus, Ohio, fell to the 17th position but experienced a rise to 183.57Mbps from its October score of 153.78Mbps, placing it in seventh place.
Still, the city rankings might be the most accurate indicator of Verizon's catch-up progress. Unlike October, when T-Mobile was the clear victor in nine out of the top ten cities, even Glendale, which ranked first, could not provide a statistically significant winner. For the other twenty-eight cities in the top 100, the same held true. Even so, T-Mobile accounted for 67 of the top 100 positions, with Verizon leading in just three cities: Irvine, California; Miami, Florida; and El Paso, Texas; AT&T led in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.