AT&T, T-Mobile Force 5G Customers to Choose Between Lowband & Highband

Mike Dano
News Analysis
Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

If you're shopping for a 5G phone in the US this holiday season, you'll have to make a choice: Do you want a lowband 5G phone or a highband 5G phone?

Because you will not be able to purchase a phone that does both.

AT&T today finally announced its commercial 5G launch plans. The first 5G phone it's going to sell to regular customers -- the Samsung Galaxy Note10+ 5G -- will not be able to access the highband, millimeter-wave (mmWave) 5G network that AT&T has been boasting about for an entire year. Instead, the phone will only be able to access 5G signals in AT&T's lowband 850MHz spectrum.

"We're continuing to work with device manufacturers to bring a dual capable device to consumers early next year," the operator said in response to questions from Light Reading.

T-Mobile is forcing its own customers to make a similar choice. The operator confirmed to Light Reading that its initial lowband 5G phones -- the Samsung Galaxy Note10+ 5G and the OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren -- also will not support the highband, mmWave network that T-Mobile launched in six cities in June.

Further, T-Mobile confirmed that the phone it launched in June in support of its mmWave 5G network -- the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G -- will not be able to support the lowband 5G network it will launch in the coming weeks.

T-Mobile did not immediately respond to questions from Light Reading about whether it would continue to sell all three of its 5G phones -- the Samsung Galaxy Note10+ 5G, the OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren and the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G -- alongside each other throughout the holidays, a situation that would force customers to choose one kind of 5G over the other.

Highband 5G is typically only available in select parts of a few big cities, based on the relatively short distances such signals can propagate -- but highband 5G can support superfast connections. Lowband 5G, on the other hand, can cover wide geographic areas but can't support superfast connections.

The messy, early days of 5G
The reason US shoppers are being forced to make this choice is because handset makers like Samsung and others don't yet have access to the kinds of chips (like Qualcomm's X55) that can run 5G concurrently in both lowband spectrum and highband spectrum. Those chips are scheduled to arrive sometime next year.

The issue is partly due to the fact that highband spectrum (also called millimeter-wave spectrum, which typically sits about 20GHz) is relatively new to the commercial wireless industry. For the past 40 years or so, most cellular communications have been conducted in midband and lowband spectrum.

"You have to start somewhere," Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics, told Cnet.

It's worth pointing out that Verizon will eventually force a similar choice onto its own customers. The 5G phones it has been selling this year do not physically support 5G in the lowband spectrum that the operator has said it will eventually use for 5G. However, Verizon has not said when it might launch 5G in lowband spectrum.

Sprint is the only major nationwide wireless operator that is taking a relatively straightforward approach to 5G, but that's only because the operator has massive and mostly unused midband spectrum holdings.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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