While AT&T and T-Mobile have both committed to nationwide rollouts of 5G cellular technology next year, an interview with Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg this morning suggests that 5G may actually take considerably longer than that to spread to customers. However, the prickly nature of the interview with CNBC’s David Faber this morning may have done some injustice to Vestberg’s intent.

Generally, major U.S. carriers have previously suggested that 5G service will be available nationwide in 2020, with T-Mobile promising a national blanket of 600MHz coverage, and AT&T committing to sub-6GHz nationwide coverage, likely using 700MHz FirstNet towers. So far, the top three carriers have all deployed 5G using short-distance millimeter wave radios, which are reportedly not realistically scalable to national rollouts, and in Verizon’s case have been fragmented across pre-standards 5G for “fixed” home broadband service in four cities, and standards-compliant 5G for mobile service in nine cities.

During the interview, Vestberg was challenged with reports that the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G was overheating in outdoor summer usage, and asked when “functional phones running on 5G” would be usable in 50% of the country. Vestberg’s response was that he thinks that will happen in 2020, enabled by dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS), which will let 4G and 5G share the same radio hardware. He also cited a prediction that it will take until 2024 for 50% of Americans to be using 5G cell phones.

The dates are interesting, but it’s important to put Vestberg’s somewhat forced statements into proper perspective. Regarding network coverage, the 50% number was posited by his interviewer as a minimum threshold, which is to say that the carrier might well cover a larger percentage of U.S. land or potential customers next year. Moreover, the projected 2024 50% uptake of 5G cell phones is based on assumptions that might not be accurate, including continued availability of 4G-only phones in 2020 and 2021. Qualcomm recently suggested that virtually all new Android phones shipped next year will be 5G-capable, which if true will push customers toward the new standard more quickly.

Despite the negative thrust of CNBC’s questions, Vestberg’s comments were fairly optimistic. He noted that Verizon’s early 5G network is already seeing improvements, with mobile speeds going from 600Mbps to 2Gbps in only weeks — massive gains that are unlike those seen in the 4G era, with a positive trajectory thanks to network software improvements. Additionally, the company rolled out 5G in four new cities this week, bringing its mobile 5G tally to nine, while promising to expand the reach of its 5G services in existing cities.


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