Who Will Win The U.S. 5G Race?

The race for 5G is heating up! At Mobile World Congress 2018, each of the U.S. tier one carriers announced their 5G plans. Let’s look at each of the specific announcements and I will share my perspective and analysis.

AT&T:  Has its promise of a 5G “evolution” delivered or confused the market?

AT&T  has been promoting its “5G Evolution” for quite some time now. I’ve been critical of the marketing spin because I believe it has confused and misled customers—it’s actually 4G Advanced LTE with some pre-5G enhancements. Last month, however, the company announced its intention to offer mobile 5G in a dozen cities in the U.S. (including my hometown of Austin, Texas) by the end of 2018. That being said, the company has publicly stated that end device availability will trail into 2019. Unless there are plans for Internet of Things (IoT) sensor and device availability tied to smart city deployments or similar applications, it won’t matter that the network is primed for 5G this year.

Sprint:  Can the “comeback kid” finally make its mark with 5G?

I’ve been following Sprint for some time, and I’ve written fairly extensively on the company (if interested, you can read one of my prior articles here). Sprint announced last month that it will be the first carrier to deliver mobile 5G starting this coming April in Chicago, Dallas, and Los Angeles, followed by three additional metro areas later this year. Sprint is relying heavily on Massive MIMO (Multiple-Input Multiple-Output) to make this a reality and expects to deploy thousands of these radios to bolster its network capacity. Unlike AT&T and Verizon Wireless, who have plans to also deploy fixed 5G, Sprint is only deploying mobile 5G. I believe this discrete focus is providing the carrier with a time-to-market advantage. I also like Sprint’s wide spectrum footprint, pre-5G densification success with its MagicBox, and its opportunity to leverage sister company OneWeb’s low orbit satellite network for possible future 5G backhaul.

T-Mobile:  Will the “un-carrier” 5G approach be successful?
T-Mobile rules the roost these days with its growing consumer share of the market, thanks to its Netflix content bundles and the highest unlimited data caps. However, the company falls short on the enterprise side (you can read my thoughts on the company’s challenges here). Last month, T-Mobile announced its plans to deploy mobile 5G in 30 cities by the end of this year. The carrier is focused on “customer experience” and aims to deliver network coverage ubiquity. T-Mobile certainly has the spectrum depth to execute on this strategy, given its investment at FCC auction in 2017 in both 600MHz and mmWave. I don’t expect to see the carrier execute enterprise-grade 5G services, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the company build upon the success of its “Digits” multi-line service for an SMB/mid-market offering down the line that takes advantage of 5G.

Verizon: Can it re-establish a leadership position with 5G?

Verizon Wireless has been knocked off its perch with a confusing attempt to meet its competitors, with unlimited data plans that weren’t truly unlimited. 5G offers the stalwart an opportunity to regain its leadership position. Last month the carrier announced plans around both fixed and mobile 5G. Verizon is expected to deploy fixed 5G in 3 to 5 markets this year with an overall goal of reaching 30 million homes. As for mobile 5G, the company is planning to launch portable hotspot “pucks” (given lack of 5G handset availability) as it builds out its infrastructure with Ericsson in the second half of this year (Side note: AT&T is also planning on taking this approach). Where Verizon really shines is on the enterprise services side and I expect the company to lead the category for 5G services as it builds out its next-generation network.

Some final thoughts

The race to 5G is on. The carriers that can deploy network infrastructure and enable end device connectivity the fastest stand to take advantage of first-mover status. Software-defined networking will accelerate deployments, so keep your eyes on AT&T and Verizon Wireless.  Both carriers have taken a leadership position with their participation in ONAP (Open Network Automation Platform), which operates under the charter of driving open source, disaggregated networking solutions. I also believe that a lack of mmWave in Sprint and T-Mobile ’s initial 5G NR (New Radio) deployments may allow AT&T and Verizon to make much faster performance claims.

I predict that smaller operators will struggle with the return on investment for 5G and will wait for the tier one providers to sort out the use cases and monetization opportunities. Autonomous driving, premium gaming, telesurgery and manufacturing automation should rise to the top over time as the most compelling 5G service offerings, and both consumers and businesses will likely be willing to pay a premium. Tesla has proved consumer willingness to pay for an auto-pilot feature. Niantic has shown the potential of mobile gaming with Pokémon Go! and the highly anticipated Harry Potter AR game. Low latency support for telesurgery should create disruption and provide greater access to specialists, and automation in manufacturing should lower operating expenses and bolster profitability. 5G should bring long-term incremental revenue growth and profitability. That’s undeniably a good thing for the “Fantastic 4” U.S. carriers.