AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon CTOs give their takes on 5G

LOS ANGELES—If you really want to know what 5G is, just ask the CTOs of the four major wireless service providers in the U.S. That’s what moderator Chris Nicoll did at the 5G CTO panel discussion at Mobile World Congress Americas (MWCA) 2018 on Thursday.

Nicoll, principal analyst of Wireless & Mobility at ACG Research, spoke separately on stage with each of the experts: Sprint CTO John Saw; Verizon Chief Network Officer Nicola Palmer; T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray; and Andre Fuetsch, president of AT&T Labs and CTO.

John Saw
John Saw (FierceWireless)

Sprint’s Saw said that LTE allowed for new industries, like Uber, but it was developed before the NFV movement really got underway, whereas virtualization will be there from the start with 5G. He also said 5G is the first “G” where it’s so highly focused on verticals. 5G will also have the ultra-reliable low latency and bandwidth not seen before. “I’m just excited to see who the next Uber is in the healthcare industry, as an example,” he said.

Sprint announced last month with LG that it will be the first to introduce a 5G phone, and that will happen in the first half of 2019.

But Sprint is already preparing its network for 5G. “Massive MIMO is clearly our bridge to 5G,” and the reason Sprint has invested so much in the technology is “it gives us an opportunity to bring a lot of LTE capacity today. It is a 5G technology, but 2.5 GHz is the sweet spot” for using Massive MIMO.

Sprint has boasted about its deep 2.5 GHz holdings for years—that spectrum even goes back to Saw’s days at Clearwire—yet it has not exactly reaped great profits in terms of deployment. Sprint’s proposed combination with T-Mobile may change that, as T-Mobile is lacking in mid-band spectrum and therefore can boast the full range of low-, mid- and high-band spectrum should the deal with Sprint get approved.

“With Massive MIMO and with 5G, I think we are finally going to leverage all the capabilities of 2.5,” he said. Two-thirds of Sprint’s sites are now using 2.5 GHz; it has 160 megahertz of 2.5 on average, and it will be simultaneously rolling out LTE and 5G at the same time.

Verizon’s take: 5G is real today

Verizon’s Palmer suggested there’s probably too much debate about what 5G is. “The reality is for Verizon, 5G is here, we don’t have to just talk about it anymore,” she said.

Customers in the four markets where it’s starting to offer service this week—Los Angeles, Houston, Sacramento and Indianapolis—can purchase it now. In fact, Verizon outfitted the Los Angeles Convention Center with a 5G node, with equipment contained in the pole.

Nicola Palmer
Nicola Palmer (FierceWireless)

The city liked gray, so that’s the color it went with. “That will be a part of the challenge for all of us going forward is aesthetics,” in both outdoor and indoor locations, she said. The live 5G nodes located in the convention center are expected to stay put even after the MWCA18 event. Verizon was showing off 3D hologram capabilities and other applications for 5G at its booth.

Of course, Verizon’s launch of a commercial service comes after many trials were conducted on millimeter wave technology. “I think there was a lot of skepticism around millimeter wave and including on our own team, and that’s why we did these trials. We took 11 markets and we deployed 28 GHz and we tested the heck out of it,” she said.

In terms of line-of-sight, the effects of rain and weather and other things, it turned out to work better than expected, especially when introducing new techniques like beamforming, all of which leads to a better experience for the consumer in the home.

For Verizon, home broadband/fixed wireless is the best entry point for its 5G. “We’ve got, I think on average, 800 megahertz or more of 28 GHz and we’ve got 39 [GHz] as well. That’s why we went there first, because we think that the use cases and the promise and the innovation that will happen with 5G will be primarily driven by that massive bandwidth. Latency as well, but that bandwidth is a big differentiator,” she said.

“When we launched nationwide 4G in December 2010, it was on 10x10 MHz of 700 MHz, and it was great and the rest was history. But here we are now talking about 400, 600, 800, in some cases over a Gig of bandwidth. It’s going to be great in the home, it’s just the beginning… We said we’d be first, we are first. It’s important because it’s real.”

T-Mobile plans to be in a unique position

Of course, both Sprint and T-Mobile need to operate as independent companies as they wait to see if their proposed merger will get the government’s approval, but T-Mobile’s Ray acknowledged the importance of that mid-band spectrum that Sprint has in its hands.

 Neville Ray
Neville Ray (FierceWireless)

“That’s the beautiful thing in that transaction, we will be in a unique position in the U.S., with both high, mid- and low-band spectrum, and that is not just the T-Mobile story,” Ray said. “I think we’ve been advocating multi-band 5G for some time” but now you see other companies in the U.S. and globally making a push on that.

“I think this 5G story is evolving,” he said, stressing that the importance of having spectrum committed to 5G across all bands is going to be a prerequisite to deliver on the experiences that the 5G specs define and that operators want to bring to market. “Spectrum is obviously very, very key.”

He also said that the topic of use cases, for him, is where the 5G discussion should be at—consumers don’t really care what technology is enabling their new, cool experiences. Certainly, 5G brings a more efficient radio and greater spectrum efficiencies. But he likes to talk more about the arc of use cases that it brings, starting with things like augmented reality experiences and high definition.

The first couple years of 5G won’t look too different from today as it’s going to take a bit of time to get networks built and for the devices to arrive.

T-Mobile is building out 5G at 600 MHz and at millimeter wave in some 30 cities this year, but it doesn’t have the same depth of millimeter wave holdings that Verizon has. Still, there are auctions coming up and it continues to do a ton of testing, Ray said.

AT&T wants 5G devices that fall back on LTE

AT&T announced 19 cities that it will be launching 5G—12 by the end of this year and seven at the start of 2019. These cities will have a millimeter wave focus, and you can expect very high multi-megabit speeds there, according to Fuetsch.

The initial device is a puck-like device that can basically be called a hotspot. “This is obviously going to be the first generation of devices that will be going out there,” and 2019 is where you’ll start to see other devices emerging—the first generations. “We’ll certainly be a part of all that. But we really wanted to get something out here quickly, to get into our customers’ hands, to really start experiencing it. We’ve been doing 5G trials for the last frankly two years,” leading the industry on standards in 3GPP, “but early on, we decided we weren’t going to waste too much time on proprietary variants.

Andre Fuetsch
Andre Fuetsch (FierceWireless)

“We really wanted something that was going to be adopted globally and give us the opportunity for our early customers that start with this technology to have something that’s also compatible with LTE. Meaning that that first device we launch with, it will certainly work great in 5G, but if you move outside of that 5G zone, it will seamlessly fall back onto the LTE network,” he said. “We think that’s a pretty big differentiator as opposed to some of the other implementations.”

AT&T also views 5G as enabling an entirely new experience, he said. “We believe it’s really about content, the creation of it and how it’s distributed,” all the way to the end points, he said.

AT&T has been a stickler about launching standards-based equipment, whereas Verizon is going out of the gate with a proprietary technology it developed with partners in its technical forum. Verizon expects to replace that with standards-based equipment later.

“Let me be clear, everything that we are launching is mobile and it’s standards-based,” Fuetsch said. “So we’re not doing anything fixed and we’re not doing anything proprietary. Our commercial launches will be the 5G mobile standard offering."