posted by Brian Johnson
There's no doubt that in the last few years there has been a lot of talk about 5G. With 2020 underway, we are starting to hear more as manufacturers make big splashes with new phone and device announcements. But before we run out and buy a new 5G phone, let's take a closer look to see where service providers actually are with their developments.
To better understand 5G, we need to take a step back and remember that 5G is not like any previous mobile technology. Earlier mobile technologies, generation 1, 2, 3 and 4G were all evolutionary that by most accounts brought incremental improvements in speed and bandwidth capabilities. 5G, although still a technology evolution from 4G, differs in its use of multiple spectrums & frequencies that significantly increase network output. So, early deployments will focus on cities with high density where 4G networks remain the foundation, and additionally large outdoor public venues like stadiums and parks.
Each operator has their own plans and strategies for how to build out 5G networks, based on their wireless spectrum holdings and network infrastructure like available fiber. As a result, operators are deploying three types of 5G:
So, as you can see 5G can be confusing for consumers because there are three different versions that are being deployed (low-band, mid-band and high-band mmWave 5G). The networking architecture will eventually work together but most of what you’ll get right now, and probably for the coming years, isn’t super fast. Even worse, there isn’t anything that works with all three right now.
AT&T has a low-band network in 20 markets for “consumers” and faster mmWave “5G+” networks in small areas of 35 markets for businesses. And like other operators, AT&T doesn’t sell phones or devices that support both networks yet.
Verizon has a less confusing 5G offering, at least for consumers right now, but it’s not as widespread. It’s still working on the fastest mmWave networks, that are live in about 30 markets. Additionally, Verizon has a 5G Home offering in approximately 5-6 cities across the US - Sacramento, Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston, with the intention of additional deployments in 2020 and 2021. This is a fixed-wireless service with peak speeds of ~1.2 Gb/s.
T-Mobile announced a nationwide low-band 5G network and smaller mmWave 5G networks in six cities. It sells two phones that work on the low-band network but only one that works on mmWave. It doesn’t currently sell any phones that work on both.
Sprint has a mid-band network that’s available in ~9 cities, and it says this network is 6x faster than LTE. Sprint sells four devices that run on its network, including three phones.
From the consumer perspective, operators are in the early days of deploying 5G. So you may want to hold off on buying a new 5G phone until later in the year. But like all technology shifts, there will be early adopters who place value on having cutting edge technologies—the ability to have specific use cases, where higher speeds, greater bandwidth and lower latency are rewarded and valued.
From the service provider perspective, 5G is a journey much more than a destination. So as they deploy 5G deeper into their network, operators will also focus on protecting and maintaining their customer base. There is very little projected subscriber growth and the network experience will be difficult to differentiate across operators. Smart operators are building frictionless touchpoints in customer journeys and working to better understand customer behavior. They’ll be able to offer services that are both useful and meaningful for the customer and can increase ARPU for the operators.
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