If you remember the year 2010, you might recall America’s transition from 3G to 4G wireless, which started with very few 4G devices and cities. It’s now clear that this year’s 4G to 5G transition will repeat that experience: Leading wireless carrier AT&T has confirmed that it will follow Verizon’s 2010 playbook for rolling out next-generation wireless services in 2018, starting by selling portable hotspots while high-speed phones are being built.
AT&T’s hotspot plan brings much-needed clarity to a fuzzy announcement last month that the company would launch “mobile 5G” in 12 cities this year. As 5G chips and phones are still in early stages of development, rival T-Mobile subsequently claimed that AT&T had “no tangible path” to launching mobile 5G this year. T-Mobile was similarly dismissive of Verizon, which committed to a smaller-scale rollout of “fixed 5G” in three to five cities, apparently jumping the gun on the as-yet-unfinished 5G standard. Verizon responded by guaranteeing that it would update its proprietary 5G hardware to ensure 5G standards compatibility.
As both AT&T’s and Verizon’s paths forward are now clear, we have a much better idea of what America’s 2018 5G roadmap will be, barring any unexpected government interruptions. If you’re in one of the cities selected by these carriers, you will be able to buy a wireless device later this year with roughly the same speed as a wired broadband connection. AT&T’s “mobile” 5G devices will be battery-powered and portable pucks; Verizon’s “fixed” 5G devices will be wall-powered and designed to be left in a home or small business. In each case, existing computers, tablets, and phones will likely use Wi-Fi to access the 5G cellular connection.
Given the incredible popularity of smartphones, why aren’t the major carriers starting with handsets first? They aren’t likely to be ready, at least, in the massive quantities necessary to serve millions of customers. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson claims that phones would be the bottleneck holding up a 5G rollout. “[T]hat’s why we’re going to be deploying pucks in the first part of our deployments in these 12 markets,” Stephenson explained last night. “So, it is a mobile solution, but it’s not going to be a handset because there aren’t going to be that many handsets available.”
Unlike the 2G, 3G, and 4G standards, 5G is being designed to embrace literally billions of devices that aren’t handsets. Carriers expect that they will have millions of low-powered, low-bandwidth Internet of Things (IoT) devices permanently connected to 5G networks, as well as connected cars, factories, cities, and components of public and private infrastructures.
Somewhat surprisingly, neither AT&T nor Verizon is concerned about building 5G infrastructure across America’s large geographic footprint, even though European carriers such as Deutsche Telekom have been forced to seek new ways to cover their 5G investments in much smaller countries. Indirect government assistance to certain U.S. carriers may explain this: Stephenson mentioned that AT&T’s 5G network will leverage FirstNet infrastructure — a secure nationwide wireless network currently being built for first responders. Verizon also appears to be working with individual cities to develop public-private 5G rollout plans to defray costs.
Beyond the actual 5G networks, U.S. consumers can also expect to see various iterations of the “road to 5G” concept marketed as interim solutions while 5G networks and devices are being built. Recent phones with LTE Advanced chips will pair with late-stage LTE-upgraded network towers in some markets to improve capacity and speeds; T-Mobile has noted that some towers are being equipped with hardware that can switch from “4.5G” to 5G when the time is right. These sorts of changes can be expected from all of the U.S. carriers over the next three years as 5G evolves from concept to reality.