The sprint to 5G in the United States is on, but only a fraction of the population has access to the technology and even fewer have devices that can use it. In that respect and for purposes of mass market adoption, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Marketers for the nation’s two largest network operators are doing their part — boasting bonafide firsts achieved by AT&T and Verizon at every turn, but the list of caveats for these early waves of 5G deployment is as long as a coupon-riddled receipt from a drug store. Coverage is spotty, service is limited, signals often drop within hundreds of feet of a base station of which there are relatively few, and devices — specifically 5G-capable smartphones that don’t require a special accessory — are nonexistent.
The starting pistol for 5G was fired last fall when Verizon was first with a proprietary flavor of 5G that delivers fixed home broadband in limited areas of four markets. Earlier this month, it launched a standards-based mobile 5G network in select neighborhoods of Chicago and Minneapolis and plans to reach 30 cities by the end of the year.
AT&T was first to launch a standards-based 5G New Radio (NR) network when it went live in a dozen markets with limited coverage in the final days of 2018. The carrier’s nascent 5G network has since expanded to 19 markets and it plans to have nationwide coverage by early 2020.
Waiting for 5G Devices
Devices, for the time being, leave much to be desired. The only 5G-capable device available to AT&T customers is a WiFi mobile hotspot. Verizon customers have to add a modular accessory to a Motorola Moto Z3 to get access to 5G.
Neither provides the experience that operators or customers expect from 5G. Genuine 5G smartphones have yet to hit the market, but that will change during the next month or so when Samsung and LG release their flagship 5G smartphones.
Both carriers are clamoring for bragging rights, but the different approaches they’ve taken thus far combined with all the aforementioned caveats makes it difficult to compare the earliest wave of 5G in the United States.
Meanwhile, T-Mobile US and Sprint, which are locked in a pitched battle to get their proposed merger approved by regulators, have some catching up to do. Sprint claims it will launch widespread 5G in four markets beginning next month, followed by five additional cities in June. T-Mobile US maintains it will have nationwide 5G coverage in 2020, but hasn’t provided many details beyond that.
With the merger and massive amounts of unused spectrum hanging in the balance, T-Mobile US and Sprint will likely need a final decision to be reached before their 5G efforts come into clearer view. Most importantly, will each operator go it alone on 5G or do it together as one combined company?
“Early implementations of 5G vary and can lead to wildly different experiences for end users. These implementation differences are first and foremost tied to what spectrum holdings different operators have available,” IHS Markit analysts wrote in a recent report about the promise and potential of 5G.
Indeed, spectrum remains an important point of distinction and contention with respect to 5G. Because AT&T and Verizon have first launched 5G on millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum they will continue to encounter limited coverage until their respective networks bring 5G to lower-band spectrum.
“This is the weakness of going with a mmWave first approach. T-Mobile and Sprint [which plan to use sub-6 GHz spectrum for initial 5G deployments] will tout coverage while Verizon and AT&T will tout speed,” said Anshel Sag, analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy.
5G networks that deliver high speeds without widespread coverage are operating in a vacuum, and executives at T-Mobile US and Sprint have criticized the early efforts of AT&T and Verizon as such. “We’ve always said nationwide 5G will require all bands — low, mid, and high,” T-Mobile US CTO Neville Ray wrote in an email to SDxCentral, adding that “mmWave spectrum can’t scale to nationwide 5G.”
The dynamic as it relates to spectrum will change during the next year, but much of T-Mobile US and Sprint’s plans are riding on the outcome of their attempt to merge. If the merger is blocked, T-Mobile US will have an unmet need for mid-band spectrum and Sprint will have to rely heavily on its 2.5 GHz mid-band spectrum. AT&T says its nationwide 5G network will provide “both the higher speeds available over mmWave spectrum and nationwide coverage over sub-6 [GHz] spectrum.”
Technical issues aside, it’s important to note that 5G is just getting off the ground and it won’t reach a point of critical mass for at least a year, and perhaps longer depending on the device upgrade cycle of subscribers. Apple, for example, isn’t expected to have a 5G iPhone until the fall of 2020.
Tenets of 5G
Furthermore, improvements in speed and coverage is just one of the three tenets of 5G. The others, mission critical communications and massive IoT, are projected to drive substantial interest and justification for 5G in the years to come. Distinct use cases still need to be discovered or developed further, but the foundation for those applications is being built today.
“Success is going to be judged by the end users, and those end users could be consumers, whole industries, or enterprises as each of the different capabilities of 5G start to come to fruition and start to solve some real world problems,” said Francis Sideco, vice president of technology analytics and performance benchmarking at IHS Markit.
“There’s going to be a set of use cases that we all envision that are going to get better and more usable, but there’s also going to be a set of unknowns and I think that’s what’s so interesting about these transitions,” he said. “You don’t necessarily need to have a crystal ball because even the known use cases and the known value propositions I believe are enough to justify the business case around rolling this out.”
As Sideco and his colleagues wrote in their report, there are aspirational goals for 5G. While 5G “will eventually enable applications that hold the potential to transform everyday life, open new business opportunities, and enable new business models, the full range of planned 5G capabilities will not be available during initial 5G launches and will be implemented in a phased approach over the next few years.”
Until that happens there will be a lot of questions and confusion about what 5G is, why the industry is so excited about it, and why consumers or businesses should care.