While AT&T and Verizon used last week’s CES to announce limited-scale 2018 rollouts of 5G cellular services, T-Mobile had little to say. That changed this week with a blog post from T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray, who has clarified the third-largest U.S. carrier’s 5G plans while throwing punches at rivals.
Previously, T-Mobile “expected” to begin its 5G rollout in 2019 “with a target of 2020 for full nationwide coverage.” In light of rivals’ 2018 announcements, Ray switched the emphasis to suggest that the carrier won’t lag rivals if 5G smartphones become available in 2019: T-Mobile is committing to start offering some 5G service in 2019, with nationwide 5G coverage in 2020.
Ray explained that T-Mobile’s 5G rollout will actually begin with the carrier’s addition of “new, clear” 600MHz “low band” spectrum. Next up will be repurposing of previous 4G/LTE spectrum to 5G, and the addition of millimeter wave hardware for “urban multi-gigabit hotspots, campuses, and buildings.”
According to Ray, 5G-ready 600MHz equipment is “already deploying,” enabling T-Mobile to add 5G services to its network with a software upgrade “when the technology is ready,” which is expected to be in 2019. Ray nodded to the expected ubiquity of 5G by referencing T-Mobile’s already-announced “pathway to 5G” $6-per-year IoT data plans debuting in 2018, and teasing future 5G-enabled sensors efficient enough to track any item for a decade without a recharge.
Like virtually every statement made by a T-Mobile executive, the blog post also threw hard punches at rivals, suggesting that anything done by AT&T and Verizon before 2019 will be pointless. Ray specifically knocked AT&T for promising 5G in 2018 with “no tangible path” to fulfilling that promise and Verizon for doubling down on a late 2018 launch of “pre-standards” 5G service that won’t scale or be compatible with “the vast majority of 5G smartphones.” As Ray put it, “not only is Verizon standing alone on the Fixed 5G Island, but it *really* is an island!!!”
Although T-Mobile’s messaging might appear to be purely self-serving, it does reflect the consensus reached by industry experts at CES: Standards-compliant 5G chips are still in the works, and they shouldn’t be expected to arrive in smartphones until early 2019. While there’s always the possibility that AT&T and Verizon could sell devices that just need software upgrades to become 5G standards-compliant — like T-Mobile’s 600MHz network equipment — that appears to be unlikely, at least for consumer hardware. There may be trickles of 5G here and there throughout 2018, but the real 5G solutions are coming in 2019 and thereafter.