With the ink barely dry on the first new radio (NR) specification from the 3GPP, a fierce 5G marketing battle between the major US operators has begun, with AT&T joining the fray very early Thursday by announcing it would launch a "mobile" 5G service this year. (See AT&T Prepares For Mobile 5G Launch in 2018 and 5G Is Official: First 3GPP Specs Approved.)
The news looks like a riposte to AT&T's spikey "uncarrier" rival. Always bristling for a fight, T-Mobile US was the first belligerent of the new year, announcing earlier this week that it would "leapfrog" AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) with the launch of a "real, mobile, nationwide 5G" network in the US in 2020. (See T-Mobile CEO: We'll 'Leapfrog' AT&T & Verizon With Mobile 5G.)
As T-Mobile US Inc. CEO John Legere was quick to point out, both AT&T and Verizon have been largely focused on using 5G as a "fixed" technology to provide higher-speed broadband services.
But all that changed in the early hours of Thursday morning. Seemingly refusing to be outdone by Legere, AT&T bragged that it would become the first US company to launch a "mobile" 5G service this year. In statement detailing various technology plans, the operator promised to launch standardized 5G services, providing mobile connectivity for consumers and businesses, in a dozen markets (which effectively means cities) by late 2018.
Reaching out to AT&T was impossible at the time this story was written, but the announcement clearly begs questions.
Above all, what 5G devices will AT&T provide? While the 5G NR specification has now been locked down, leading mobile chipmaker Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) has previously indicated that it does not expect the first 5G smartphones to arrive in the market until mid-2019. (See 5G Is Official: First 3GPP Specs Approved and Qualcomm: First 5G Smartphones Coming Mid-2019.)
This partly explains why the companies plotting 5G launches this year, or in early 2019, have been largely focused on using 5G as a substitute for high-speed fixed-line technologies.
Then there is the related issue of spectrum. T-Mobile reckons it can provide a "nationwide" service using the low-band 600MHz airwaves it recently picked up during a spectrum auction. These can cover wide areas more economically than higher frequency bands and seem ideal for use with mobile devices.
AT&T and Verizon, by contrast, have literally been working at the opposite end of the spectrum. The ultra-high-band "mmWave" frequencies they have acquired can provide a massive dose of bandwidth in urban hotspots and seem tailored to "fixed" 5G. But they are poor long-distance travellers, and perform badly indoors. Building smartphones that can run over 28GHz airwaves is a challenge because a user's hand could block the 5G signal.
Unless AT&T can shed more light on its mobile 5G plans, T-Mobile's Legere may be the first to call BS on them. The potty-mouthed executive has been an outspoken critic of both his larger competitors, describing AT&T and Verizon as "Dumb and Dumber" in his latest announcement. He will be quick to pounce on anything that smells iffy.
What's more, AT&T has left itself exposed to criticism in its latest statement by dredging up the derided "5G Evolution" label.
This first appeared in marketing literature last year and essentially means LTE-Advanced -- a mere upgrade to 4G -- as Legere was eager to highlight. In last night's statement, AT&T claimed to have launched "5G Evolution" in 23 major metros and said it would bring the technology to "hundreds of additional metro areas" this year. (See AT&T Q3: Taxes, FirstNet & '5G Evolution'.)
If all this demonstrates anything, it's that US operators firmly believe the aggressive promotion of 5G will secure them new customers. Given that "mobile" 5G will at first do nothing more than provide a bandwidth boost, this is somewhat depressing. For all their bluster about expansion into new value-added service areas, operators continue to put the marketing artillery in the connectivity fight.
That doesn't mean consumers won't react, though. The same people excited by seemingly pointless iPhone upgrades will, no doubt, want the latest and greatest mobile service -- especially if the neighbors already have it.
One can expect to hear a lot more about "mobile" 5G before January is over. And how long will it take Verizon, or even Sprint, to enter the fray?
— Iain Morris, News Editor, Light Reading