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Following a series of increasingly concrete 5G rollout announcements from AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile, Sprint today committed to launching mobile 5G service nationally in the first half of 2019 — at somewhat higher prices. The commitment suggests that the fourth-place U.S. carrier may lag behind larger rivals AT&T and Verizon, which will begin 5G deployments later in 2018, but may beat T-Mobile, which is targeting 2020 for full nationwide 5G coverage.
Unlike Verizon, which thus far has announced only “fixed 5G” plans for wireless residential and commercial broadband service, Sprint is focusing on “mobile 5G” — portable wireless devices. Sprint says that it is working with Qualcomm on 5G technology, and at least one Korean manufacturer to ready 5G handsets for its network.
Interestingly, Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure also provided the first concrete details as to how premium 5G service pricing will work; competitors have only hinted at future price increases. Claure expects that Sprint will jump from its recent $50 to $60 monthly unlimited pricing to higher 5G pricing similar to its rivals’ current unlimited prices of $70 to $80. “It’s going to be very difficult for our competitors to increase the price of unlimited,” Claure said, “but we’re going to have a lot of room to increase our price of unlimited to get to similar prices as Verizon and AT&T in the future.”
Unlike rivals that have emphasized plans to utilize low-frequency and ultra-high-frequency spectrum in building 5G infrastructure, Sprint will start with “super wide channels” of 160MHz of 2.5 GHz spectrum, which is already serviced by half of Sprint’s towers in the top 100 U.S. markets. Higher speeds will be achieved using Massive MIMO antennas that can communicate with devices on multiple frequencies at once; the antennas can be used now for faster 4G LTE service and then software-switched to 5G in 2019.
Sprint also plans to expand the 2.5 GHz spectrum to all of its existing towers and increase its tower count by around 20 percent to help build out the 5G network. It will also deploy a large collection of small 5G transceivers, including 40,000 outdoor small cells, 15,000 cable strand small cells, and up to 1 million consumer cellular boxes.
Though it seems unlikely, Claure claimed that Sprint will have the first mobile 5G network in the U.S. and “potentially in the world,” while conceding that a Korean carrier could beat Sprint to the latter achievement. Bragging rights will probably be shared: AT&T’s 2018 rollout of mobile 5G in 12 cities will surely be followed by additional cities in 2019, leaving the scope of “nationwide” coverage somewhat ambiguous.
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