We’ll know in 2020 what kind of service and customer enthusiasm lies beneath U.S. 5G hype

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Small cell lacc 22oct2019

5G service will begin to enter the mainstream consumer market in the United States next year. Senior technology officers from all four major U.S. mobile carriers talked about their plans for moving beyond test markets and technology demonstrations last week at the Mobile World Congress trade show in Los Angeles. With consumer devices – smartphones, particularly – on the market and cell site construction and upgrades picking up pace, success will finally be judged on subscriber uptake and revenue, rather than on whose marketing pitch is the cleverest.

Verizon’s 5G rollout will lean heavily, if not exclusively, on high band millimeter wave frequencies, according to Nicki Palmer, a senior vice president with the company. Those bands are in the 20 GHz and up range, and can carry a lot of data – “massive bandwidth” that’s ideal for in-home service, Palmer said.

She also provided some insight into Verizon’s 5G in home service trials, the first of which was rolled out in Sacramento last year. Palmer claimed that Verizon can deliver between 300 Mbps and 1 gigabit download speeds to home users, some of whom are connecting up to 35 different devices to the network at once. That’s not so surprising, though – technophile adopters of any type of advanced service tend to be heavy users.

T-Mobile intends to offer 5G service on low, high and mid-band spectrum, according to chief technology officer Neville Ray. Getting access to Sprint’s midband frequencies is central to that plan, though, and that merger has not been approved yet.

Merger or not, Sprint is moving ahead with mid-band 5G service, according to chief technology officer John Saw. Sprint’s service on 2.5 GHz frequencies is the only mid-band 5G offering in the U.S., he claimed. He didn’t say how many customers are using the service, but the ones that are use three to five times more bandwidth than the typical 4G subscriber. That’s typical of technophiles and early adopters – the digital equivalent of four pack a day smokers.

AT&T’s 5G rollout strategy is aimed at businesses users more than consumers, according to chief technology officer Andre Fuetsch, who said enterprise applications will be “the sweet spot” for 5G. Even so, AT&T plans to light up 5G service nationwide on low band frequencies. What really got Fuetsch going, though, was the ability of 5G technology to serve many more devices at once. He said that where a 4G network can support thousands of devices, a 5G network will be able to serve millions in the same area.

Even so, 2020 will not see explosive growth in 5G subscriber numbers. Deployments will be meaningful, but it will be many years before any will be considered complete, and full availability in rural communities and less affluent suburbs might never come. Handset costs will also remain high, while technological challenges, such as battery life, are ironed out.