While every major U.S. carrier agrees that near-zero latency and up to 100 times faster data speeds will enable “5G” networks to blur lines between home, mobile, and office data services, actual plans to bring 5G to consumers have remained hazy until this week. AT&T today unveiled plans to roll out a “mobile 5G” network in a dozen markets by the end of 2018.
AT&T’s announcement comes shortly after the first 5G new radio standards were finalized last month by international cellular standards body 3GPP, enabling hardware, chip, and device designers to start bringing standards-compliant products to market.
Until now, AT&T had remained coy on the scope and nature of its mobile 5G deployment. In a sign that upset some observers, the company rebranded several late-stage LTE technologies as “5G Evolution,” enabling it to market enhanced LTE services in 23 regions during the 4G to 5G transition. AT&T also conducted so-called “Fixed 5G” tests in four U.S. cities, relying on smaller-sized cellular units to offer 5G solely inside residential, small business, and educational settings. But the company today enunciated a vision of ubiquitous 5G service spanning everything from mobile and VR to car AI and home TV applications.
“5G will change the way we live, work and enjoy entertainment,” said AT&T technology and operations president Melissa Arnoldi. “With faster speeds and ultra-low latency, 5G will ultimately deliver and enhance experiences like virtual reality, future driverless cars, immersive 4K video and more.” By comparison, AT&T’s rivals have each committed to smaller or later 5G rollouts.
Yesterday, Samsung confirmed that Verizon has chosen Sacramento, California to lead a three- to five-city 5G rollout in the second half of this year. Verizon has partnered with Samsung for “fixed 5G” microcell units, home routers, and mobile chip-sized modems, which Verizon expects will be needed to offer higher-speed 5G service to its customers. Trials of Verizon’s 5G technology in California, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Texas, and Washington, D.C. hint at other possible locations for its 2018 rollout.
Verizon has also identified “Massive MIMO” as an interim step on the “path to 5G.” Late last year, it announced that was working with Qualcomm and Ericsson to improve network speeds and capacity using simultaneous multi-antenna technology throughout 2018.
Sprint, which many thought would be either acquired or out of business by now, announced last year that it was working with parent company Softbank and chip maker Qualcomm to develop a high-band 5G solution in the 2.5GHz range, with a planned deployment in “late 2019.” No other details have been announced, apart from Sprint’s plan to bridge the 4G-to-5G gap with an interim Massive MIMO solution from Ericsson throughout 2018.
“Our next-generation 5G-ready TDD 64T64R Massive MIMO radio (AIR6468) will help maximize spectral efficiency of Sprint’s 2.5 GHz network,” Ericsson said following Seattle, Washington and Plano, Texas tests with Sprint in September 2017. “It will also provide a cost-efficient way to support their customers’ growing appetite for increased capacity and high-speed data services.”
Partnered with Intel and Nokia, T-Mobile intends to leverage its recently acquired “coast to coast” 600MHz radio spectrum to provide a “real, mobile, nationwide 5G” rollout — by 2020. In typically restrained fashion, T-Mobile CEO John Legere claimed last month that AT&T and Verizon, aka “Dumb and Dumber,” will “focus on 5G hotspots that won’t work when you leave your home.”
T-Mobile expects to use low-, mid-, and high-band spectrum to enable a complete outdoor and indoor 5G network. The “low-band spectrum” 600MHz radio waves are said to travel twice as far as the more common mid-band spectrum and offer four times better performance in buildings, addressing potential performance issues that rival carriers are dealing with.
With the first 5G standard only gaining approval in late December 2017, the rollout of early bona-fide 5G mobile devices seems unlikely before the end of this year, which explains the “5G Evolution” and “Massive MIMO” strategies most carriers are adopting in 2018. Intel and Qualcomm are among the companies currently testing true 5G modems, with Intel forecasting “2020 as the time when you’ll see major network operators and infrastructure partners fully deploying 5G capability” and Qualcomm expecting to have products in the first half of 2019. Pricing, of course, is not yet available.
In short, you’ll need to be in the right place and ready to buy all-new hardware to enjoy 5G over the next few years. But if the predictions prove correct, 5G will be worth the wait.