5G Marketing Wars Heat Up

AT&T says it will be the first U.S. mobile operator to launch mobile 5G--in a dozen U.S. cities--in 2018.

T-Mobile US says it will launch the first commercial mobile 5G network in 2020, when, he argues, AT&T and Verizon will still be focused on fixed implementations of 5G.

Verizon, for its part, plans to launch fixed 5G in several U.S. cities in 2018.

Some observers say no 5G networks going commercial before 2020 are “true standards-based 5G.” Consumers will not care, of course, so long as there are performance advantages. And even the claim of “non-standard” implementations are judgment calls.

International standards bodies have authorized the 5GNR systems AT&T will activate in 2018.

Recall similar arguments about 4G, when there were both “global standard” Long Term Evolution and WiMAX networks in operation, and some might have quibbled about whether WiMAX was really 4G.

But marketing wars always are fought over concepts such as “which network is fastest?” They also are fought over “which firm operates the most-advanced network?” Hence the marketing claims being made about the timing of 5G launches in the U.S. market.

In the end none of this will matter, as important as “leadership” now will be claimed, just as nobody now cares about who was “first” to deploy 4G (Verizon), or how the implementation began (Verizon and others started with data cards only, as no mobile phone devices initially were available).

Sprint, for its part, used WiMAX. Customers still bought it, as it represented faster speeds, compared to 3G.  

As always, there are commercial drivers of all such claims. For starters, it is no clear at all that Verizon and AT&T will not have launched mobile 5G services by 2020, even if their 2018 and 2019 efforts might focus on fixed implementations.


Also, different contestants have assets that lead them to deploy in certain ways. As T-Mobile US says, it has lots of new 600-MHz spectrum that can underpin a 5G launch. Verizon arguably is the most capacity-constrained contestant, and is relying on new troves of millimeter wave spectrum (28 GHz and 39 GHz), which are better suited to small cell deployments, and therefore fixed implementations.

T-Mobile US, on the other hand, will launch mobile 5G most likely in only some areas of the country where it has spectrum shortages, and not nationwide.

As most spectrum-related business issues revolve around whether new capacity is used to support coverage or capacity, it might be argued that T-Mobile US is going to focus on coverage, while Verizon is going to focus on capacity.

In substantial part, those decisions are based on physical signal propagation characteristics of radio waves. Lower frequencies have better reach, but offer less capacity; higher frequencies propagate less well, but support higher bandwidth.

Verizon and AT&T also will be refarming 2G and 3G spectrum to support their coverage and capacity. In that regard, both AT&T and Verizon will be boosting 4G capacity, to support higher consumer access speeds.

That, in turn, represents one of the key 5G business model issues: for consumer smartphone end users, it will not matter whether 4G or 5G is the platform, so long as faster internet access is possible.

Ultimately, marketing claims aside, AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile US will carefully deploy new capacity, whether augmenting 4G or launching 5G. For consumer smartphone users, the advantages of 5G as a platform are likely to be quite subtle, or perhaps non-existent, where it comes to experienced speed.

Better 5G latency performance might not be noticeable or valuable in most instances, as 4G latency performance should get better as well.

The bottom line: each carrier will deploy new assets in the way that drives most incremental value, and likely not on a ubiquitous basis, initially.
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