Set your alarms: Wednesday promises plenty of 5G fireworks
Two separate but related events appear poised to happen on Wednesday: T-Mobile and Sprint will announce the official close of their long-gestating merger, and the FCC's chairman will outline his plan to release the 6GHz spectrum band for unlicensed use.
Neither development has been officially confirmed, but both appear very likely. The fact that both may happen on the same day – April Fool's day – is coincidental.
More importantly, both events will have a significant impact on the 5G industry.
A two-year merger process
Perhaps the more important development for the 5G industry – at least in the short term – is the close of the merger between Sprint and T-Mobile.
According to Bloomberg, the banks backing the merger of Sprint and T-Mobile were notified Monday that they will need to make their funds available starting April 1. That's the day that T-Mobile's incoming CEO, Mike Sievert, promised to close the merger.
Providing more evidence that Sprint and T-Mobile will close their merger Wednesday, Steve Blum of Tellus Venture Associates noted that the companies this week filed new documents with the California Public Utilities Commission that could let them close their merger as soon as April 1, without explicit approval from the agency.
According to FierceWireless, T-Mobile didn't respond to questions about its plans.
The combination of T-Mobile's 600MHz licenses with Sprint's 2.5GHz licenses would result in an operator commanding a total of 300MHz of spectrum (versus AT&T's 176MHz and Verizon's 117MHz).
Those holdings could give the combined Sprint and T-Mobile a major edge in 5G. "T-Mobile is now, in our view, the most compelling investment opportunity in our coverage universe," Wall Street analysts at MoffettNathanson wrote in a recent investor report.
After all, T-Mobile has promised to spend $40 billion over three years to build "the world's best 5G network."
Finally, there's one more major development in 5G that likely will be put in motion by the close of the merger between Sprint and T-Mobile: Dish Network will be on the hook to officially begin construction of its promised nationwide 5G network.
6GHz spectrum, unlicensed
The second event that appears likely to happen Wednesday is a decision by the FCC's chairman on the agency's 6GHz proceeding. Law360 reported that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai will release his 6GHz proposal Wednesday, and the Wall Street analysts at New Street Research concurred in a note to investors issued Tuesday. "Chairman Pai is expected to discuss his views tomorrow and the draft item is expected to be published the following day. The FCC vote is expected at its April meeting," the analysts wrote.
The FCC for months has been considering exactly how to release fully 1,200MHz of spectrum in the 6GHz band for commercial use. On one side of the debate are 5G providers including Verizon and AT&T, which have been urging the commission to allocate some or all of the 6GHz band for licensed operations, including 5G. On the other side, Wi-Fi proponents have urged the FCC to keep the entire band unlicensed, so that it can be used to improve existing Wi-Fi networks.
"Most likely outcome: All 1,200MHz goes to Wi-Fi," wrote the analysts at New Street.
While this development would clearly represent a setback to 5G operators like Verizon and AT&T, it doesn't necessarily exclude 5G from the 6GHz band completely. Indeed, there are already proposals to develop a version of 5G for unlicensed bands. Further, AT&T, Verizon and other 5G operators have already begun using unlicensed spectrum via technologies like LAA as a way to buttress their existing 4G LTE networks.
At the very least, 5G network operators could offload more of its traffic onto 6GHz Wi-Fi networks.
"We don't believe Wi-Fi services compete with licensed wireless services today," wrote the analysts at New Street. "We think Wi-Fi is complementary, with Wi-Fi offload improving the economics of licensed services. Further, we see no data that suggests that any consumers don't take mobile services because they get what they need from Wi-Fi based services; indeed, this is why Wi-Fi only service plays have never scaled beyond private locations and best-effort, low-quality services."