Is 5G all it’s cracked up to be? Verizon’s Joe Russo believes it will be

Verizon has been a pioneer in millimeter wave (mmWave) technology, but it’s also taken its share of hits for doing so because of its propagation characteristics.  

It’s one reason T-Mobile continues to harp on about how its multi-band 5G strategy is the right one, while “other U.S. operators went all in on millimeter wave at the beginning of the 5G era.” That was a line in a press release Tuesday announcing how T-Mobile now covers 300 million people with Ultra Capacity, or mostly mid-band, spectrum.

But Verizon is holding firm to its mmWave strategy. 

During a podcast published this week, Recon Analytics analyst Roger Entner called Verizon’s mmWave deployment of about 40,000 mmWave nodes a “staggering number.” He asked his guest, Joe Russo, EVP and president of Global Networks & Technology at Verizon, if the plan is to supplement or increase the mmWave coverage going forward.

Russo acknowledged the carrier has a lot of mmWave holdings. Verizon’s first mmWave deployments have focused on dense urban areas, at stadiums and along beaches where they see a high concentration of people, he said. This week, Verizon announced it has deployed mmWave in all 30 NFL stadiums.

“It’s been a super tool for us,” Russo said, noting they deploy “several thousand new millimeter wave nodes every year … It’s been a great complement to the C-band spectrum.”

The “ah-ha” moment for him was a couple years ago when he was in some of the NFL stadiums where thousands of fans are trying to upload and share experiences during big events. Prior to mmWave, it wasn’t possible to communicate with people outside the venues with the volumes of streaming content that’s being done today. (Taylor Swift, anyone?)  

“We really solved that problem with millimeter wave. We’re now allowing customers to both stream down and up in those kinds of venues,” and it’s not just about speed but capacity to enable those kinds of things, he said.

The mmWave complements Verizon’s C-band, or 3.7 GHz, spectrum. Verizon has largely completed the buildout of its C-band spectrum in the first 46 Partial Economic Areas (PEAs) metro areas where it won licenses and it’s now deploying C-band in 406 PEAs across the country. Over the next year or two, it will continue to turn on C-band in more suburban and rural areas, he said.

Is 5G really all it’s cracked up to be?

Russo said he gets the question quite often around the relevancy of 5G, both in terms of what it means for consumers and for the enterprise.

“I’m very optimistic – bullish, as a matter of fact, around the capabilities we’re putting into the network,” he said.

When Verizon launched its LTE network, few people foresaw how many use cases ultimately emerged. “I’m a firm believer the same exact thing will happen with 5G” as developers find new ways to use the technology, he said.

Russo also was asked about his comments at MWC 2023 Las Vegas around 5G Standalone (SA), where he said it wasn’t his intention to be first in deploying nationwide 5G SA.

5G SA is “absolutely” a capability that will be another enabler to new use cases, but “the reliability and performance of Verizon’s network is what we stand for and I don’t put technology out into the network that is a step back. It has to be a step forward,” he said.

All the data from both internal and external testing shows SA “needs a little bit more time,” he said.

Verizon is doing significant testing and development to make sure both the data and voice sessions in a SA world are as good or better than what’s in the LTE network today. “We see that in the next several months, we’re going to get there. But it was not my goal to be first in deploying standalone. It’s my goal to be best in deploying standalone.”

Verizon has 5G SA in trials only at this point; it is not commercially available, he said.

If there were something customers couldn’t do on the Verizon network that required a 5G SA core, he probably would have pushed it out for those use cases. But for now, Verizon is working with enterprises and developers to time it appropriately. “More to come in the next several months,” he said.  

Private network expectations 

That stands in contrast to what T-Mobile is doing. The carrier was the first out of the gate in 2020 with a nationwide SA network, although it hasn’t been particularly vocal about what it’s doing with network slicing until recently.

In Verizon’s Q3 earnings call yesterday, CEO Hans Vestberg said when it comes to private networks, Verizon doesn’t expect to see a big impact on revenues in 2024, but the groundwork is being laid for that to happen in 2025.

Today, T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert was asked during the earnings call if he has similar views on private networks in 2025. He said for some carriers with 5G SA capabilities, private networks are here now. “We just aren’t managing it through press release and vaporware,” he said. “We’re just quietly serving customers.”

President of T-Mobile Business Group Callie Field cited Boston Children’s Hospital as one example in healthcare where T-Mobile is providing a 5G hybrid network.