Verizon is set to launch its pre-standard fixed 5G wireless service, called Verizon 5G Home, in four markets Monday. Whether this makes it the first service provider globally to commercially launch 5G is up for debate. It’s pre-standard, which means it is using proprietary equipment based upon early 5G specs created by the 5G Tech Forum (a group organized by Verizon that included vendors such as Cisco, Ericsson, Samsung, Nokia, and Qualcomm). Nevertheless, Verizon maintains that it is the first operator to launch 5G and says it will upgrade its gear to standardized 5G when 3GPP-compliant equipment is available.
Perhaps Verizon’s limited market launch coupled with the need for the router to be professionally installed by technicians is causing some industry watchers to draw a comparison between Verizon’s pre-standard 5G launch and Sprint’s high-profile but ultimately failed launch of WiMAX back in 2009.
Here’s a little background: WiMAX was an IEEE 802.11 standardized technology that was often referred to as “WiFi on steroids” because it offered fast internet service. It was often compared to cable or DSL broadband and considered a broadband replacement service.
Sprint bet big on WiMAX and deployed it in 2009 in its 2.5 GHz spectrum band. It positioned WiMAX as a competitor to 4G LTE, which was the 3GPP standardized technology that all the other cellular operators were planning to deploy when LTE equipment became available. Although Sprint was able to commercially launch WiMAX ahead of its competitors, the technology failed to attract widespread support from equipment vendors and other wireless operators. Ultimately, Sprint ended up getting rid of WiMAX and deploying LTE. But it caused the operator a lot of agony. Sprint lost customers and a lot of competitive ground.
Although Global Data Senior Analyst Ed Gubbins stopped short of comparing fixed 5G to WiMAX, he did say that operators such as AT&T have said that the reason they aren’t investing much in fixed 5G yet is because there is not a lot of operator buy-in globally, and therefore operators that do deploy fixed 5G won’t benefit from economies of scale in equipment. He also said that he has heard a lot of concerns about the business case and the technical challenges. “The limitations of high-frequency spectrum can make the business case tough for a lot of them,” he said.
But not everyone sees the similarities between WiMAX and Verizon’s fixed 5G launch. ACG analyst Chris Nicoll said that Verizon is controlling its entire pre-standard 5G vendor ecosystem, and so it doesn’t have to worry about interoperable equipment and roaming with other operators. Plus, he said that unlike WiMAX, this technology has widespread support from vendors. “We’re already seeing companies like Intel, Qualcomm, Samsung, and Ericsson supporting 5G,” he noted. “WiMAX never had broad ecosystem support.”
Even Verizon seems to admit that its fixed 5G wireless launch in these four markets is more like a high-profile trial than a full commercial offering. The company is initially providing the Verizon 5G Home service for free for three months and will not charge customers for the router. After the first three months, the company said it will charge customers with a qualifying smartphone plan $50 per month for the service. Non-Verizon customers will have to pay $70 per month.
But there is a lot of uncertainty about whether the company will be able to offer the service to enough customers at the right price to make money. Verizon is touting its “white glove” service that includes a truck roll and a technician to set up the 5G router. That’s a costly proposition.
Mark Lowenstein, founder and managing director of Mobile Ecosystem, said that there are more questions than answers when it comes to Verizon’s 5G launch. “This will be a time of learning what the performance really is like in the millimeter wave bands and how factors such as weather, reflection, building materials, etc., affect performance,” he said, adding that Verizon will have to figure out the installation issue because in its current form it’s not scalable.
But Lowenstein added that Verizon doesn’t really have a lot to lose from this fixed deployment. These first four markets — Indianapolis, Houston, Los Angeles and Sacramento, California — are also markets where the company is working hard to densify its mobile network, which will ultimately help it increase the capacity of its LTE network and prepare for its mobile 5G launch in 2019. “Even if fixed wireless access disappoints,” Lowenstein said. “All is not lost.”