Editor’s Corner—What we know, and what we don’t know, about 5G in the U.S.

Mike Dano

BARCELONA, Spain—At the Mobile World Congress trade show here, the industry got its clearest look yet at 5G. Korean players talked about their 5G trials during the Winter Olympics, and U.S. operators provided further details on their rollout plans for 5G. Although there are still plenty of things we don’t know yet about 5G, we’re starting to get a much better understanding of what it can do, how it might differ by country and carrier—and what U.S. carriers will do with it during the next year.

What we know about speeds

The 5G standard is supposed to be roughly 10 times faster than today’s LTE network technology standard. However, T-Mobile’s Neville Ray declined to say what kinds of speeds the carrier’s forthcoming 5G service will offer. Verizon, for its part, has promised consistent 1 Gbps speeds on its fixed wireless 5G service running in 28 GHz. Similarly, KT in Korea said it recorded peak speeds of up to 3.5 Gbps on a 5G Samsung tablet in its Winter Olympics trial.

Here’s the thing, though: 5G speeds are going to vary wildly depending on where users are and which carrier they subscribe to. For example, T-Mobile has promised to offer 5G nationwide by 2020, but that deployment will primarily leverage the carrier’s 600 MHz spectrum. This low-band spectrum is great for coverage but not nearly as good for speeds and capacity. So, T-Mobile will probably be able to offer much faster speeds on 5G running over 600 MHz than it would LTE over 600 MHz. But it’s probably safe to say T-Mobile’s 600 MHz speeds won’t be anywhere near the consistent 1 Gbps that Verizon will be offering over its 28 GHz spectrum. That said, Verizon’s 5G signals will only be able to go around 2,000 feet, whereas 600 MHz 5G coverage probably will be measured in miles, or even tens of miles. (To be clear, T-Mobile has said it will deploy 5G over some of its own 200 MHz of millimeter wave spectrum, though T-Mobile’s Ray made it clear that the carrier’s millimeter wave 5G service would only be deployed in select areas, likely those in dense, urban settings.)

Bottomline: 5G speeds will vary wildly depending on what spectrum is being used and how close users are to 5G base stations.

What we know about 5G spectrum

5G was initially intended for millimeter wave spectrum bands, generally those above 20 GHz. Indeed, initial discussions of the technology set a clear divide between spectrum over 6 GHz and spectrum below 6 GHz. However, T-Mobile’s announcement in early 2017 that it intended to deploy 5G in its low-band 600 MHz took many in the industry by surprise—in fact, the emerging 5G standard in early 2017 didn’t even officially contain a band class for 600 MHz spectrum.

T-Mobile’s announcement quickly spurred the 3GPP to include low-band spectrum including 600 MHz in the initial 5G specification that it announced in December.

Today, 5G is being pinned to almost any spectrum band available. But what’s still unclear is exactly what bands 5G will be deployed in here in the United States, at least initially.

Some U.S. carriers have been relatively clear about their 5G plans. For example, Sprint is deploying 5G nationwide via the installation of 64T64R (64 transmit, 64 receive) Massive MIMO antennas in its 2.5 GHz spectrum, and will start turning that technology on in Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles in April. In comparison, AT&T has said only that it will deploy mobile 5G services in a dozen cities this year, but has only named three of them (Atlanta, Dallas and Waco), and the carrier has named only one (39 GHz) of the many spectrum bands it may eventually use for 5G.

There are two relevant items to note in any discussion of 5G spectrum: First, the 3.5 GHz band is quickly emerging as one that could well become a global standard for 5G deployments. That’s noteworthy because it will make international roaming easier and could also reduce the cost of equipment through economies of scale. In the United States, the 3.5 GHz CBRS band is expected to become commercially available for unlicensed uses sometime this summer, with licensed uses available sometime after that.

Secondly, the FCC just this week announced it is hoping to hold an auction of 28 GHz spectrum as early as this November, with an auction of 24 GHz immediately thereafter.

Bottomline: Initial deployments of 5G in the United States will stretch all the way from 600 MHz to 2.5 GHz to 39 GHz, depending on the carrier—and that’s just the start.

What we know about 5G phones

AT&T will probably be the first U.S. carrier to sell a 5G device. The operator has promised to release a “puck” later this year that will support its mobile 5G service. As for T-Mobile and Sprint, both have promised to offer 5G smartphones in early 2019; Sprint has said it hopes to offer an “iconic-type phone” from a Korean vendor.

(If you’re into betting, this is a great time to wager whether Samsung’s Galaxy S10 next year will sport a 5G iteration for the U.S. market.)

It’s also important to note that Qualcomm appears to have a virtual lock on the 5G smartphone discussion, at least among U.S. carrier executives. Those executives almost exclusively talk about the availability of Qualcomm modems as the single most important factor in determining when they can sell a 5G smartphone. For its part, Qualcomm has announced Asus, HMD Global, HTC, LG, Oppo, Sharp, Sierra Wireless, Sony Mobile, vivo, Inseego/Novatel Wireless, Xiaomi and ZTE as among its confirmed Snapdragon X50 5G NR modem customers. (Apple and Samsung were not included in that announcement. Apple historically has not been quick to adopt new wireless technologies, while Samsung generally is among the first to implement new wireless technologies, and Samsung did announce a separate agreement with Qualcomm that covers 5G.)

And what will those new 5G smartphones look like? The probably will be big and bulky, and power hungry, compared with today’s LTE phones. That’s typical of any phone supporting a new generation of cellular technology—and it’s particularly likely with 5G phones because, at least initially, 5G modems will be slapped on top of LTE modems and the two technologies may work together at the same time, potentially creating an extra strain on the gadget’s battery.

Bottomline: Expect chunky 5G phones with poor battery life, at least initially. And don’t expect them to be iPhones.

What we know about 5G services and prices

If you’ve paid attention to the 5G marketing discussion during the past few years, the technology is supposed to enable all kinds of new business models and services from remote surgery to autonomous cars to remote controlled construction equipment. But the first battery of services that U.S. operators appear to be launching all involve just providing faster internet speeds. The only real difference so far is that AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile are all focusing on “mobile” 5G services (those for devices you can carry around with you) while Verizon is focused on “fixed” 5G services (for modems plugged into a home or office).

To be clear though, carriers continue to eye other 5G use cases. For example, T-Mobile’s Ray said the carrier is hoping to eventually power everything from virtual-reality offerings to real-time translation services.

Further, none of the carriers has talked about what kinds of prices they will affix to 5G—but Sprint’s CEO has made it clear that the carrier won’t sell the service at a discount as it does with its LTE service.

Bottomline: Despite all the talk about new markets and services that will be enabled by 5G, so far it appears that it will only be used to offer faster speeds than mobile or fixed networks, at least initially.

And one final thing… It’s hard to know how the 5G space, and the wireless market in general, will play out over the next 12 to 18 months. But, at least initially, Sprint appears to hold a commanding spectrum position with its massive trove of 2.5 GHz spectrum. This spectrum offers a good balance between coverage (think T-Mobile’s 600 MHz) and capacity (think AT&T’s 39 GHz), and Sprint has a lot of it all over the country (160 MHz in the top 100 markets). It also appears that SoftBank is finally opening the purse strings that will allow Sprint to actually construct a network with this spectrum. And based on recent commentary from the nation’s tower companies, Sprint is doing just that. However, faster network speeds is just one part of a successful wireless business, and Sprint will also need to figure out 5G marketing, branding and operational management to be successful.

Regardless, it ought to be an interesting few months.—Mike | @mikeddano

Editor's Corners are opinion columns written by a member of the Fierce editorial team. They are edited for balance and accuracy.