Here's Why It Might Be Time to Worry About mmWave 5G
January is the month of resolutions. Gym memberships swell. Savings accounts are reviewed. I'm taking a Spanish class at the community center down the street.
And that's why it's a little worrisome that neither AT&T nor Verizon has offered any specificity around their 5G millimeter-wave (mmWave) buildout plans for 2020.
This situation stands in stark contrast to early last year when AT&T and Verizon were in the midst of their initial mmWave 5G efforts, and were promising much more to come. For example, Verizon made a splash at last year's CES show with a major keynote from CEO Hans Vestberg outlining the operator's "eight currencies" of 5G -- the event essentially set a stake in the ground for what to expect from Verizon's mmWave 5G in the years to come.
This year, though, both operators have shied away from major CES appearances, having both ended 2019 with mmWave 5G in parts of around 30 cities. For 2020, both operators are only offering vague promises of "more" mmWave 5G.
Specifically, in a New Year-themed post, AT&T's Scott Mair wrote that "you're in for an exhilarating ride on the AT&T 5G network in 2020 and beyond," but he did not offer any specifics about what the carrier will do with its "5G+" network. Then, during a subsequent appearance at an investor event this week, AT&T CFO John Stephens said only that the operator's 5G network would "continue to improve and grow."
Similarly, Verizon touted its "vision" for its network in 2020 in a release issued this week, but said only that customers should "expect more great innovations and technology advancements from us in 2020 including a more aggressive build out of our 5G network." At that same investor event, Verizon's Ronan Dunne said "we will be continuing to drive hard" in 5G, but didn't offer any specifics.
The bottom line here is that neither operator is offering any concrete information on the number of cities, cell sites or customers it plans to touch with mmWave 5G in 2020. As Heavy Reading analyst Gabriel Brown writes, it's time for these operators to show their hands.
Now, to be fair, we're only a handful of days into 2020. The MWC trade show in Barcelona at the end of February looms large on the global wireless industry's calendar, and both AT&T and Verizon could well make mmWave-related announcements at that event, or at other events.
Further, neither is standing still in lowband 5G. Verizon's Dunne said the operator could well use Dynamic Spectrum Sharing this year to bring 5G into other spectrum bands beyond its mmWave holdings. Meantime, AT&T has made no secret of its plans to expand its lowband 5G service "nationwide" by the middle of this year.
However, executives from both companies have also downplayed the importance of lowband 5G. That comes as no surprise, considering T-Mobile -- perhaps the nation's biggest proponent of lowband 5G -- itself confirmed that speeds on its lowband 5G network would only be 20% faster than speeds on its 4G network. That kind of performance doesn't quite meet the "fourth industrial revolution" hype that, for better or worse, continues to surround 5G.
Part of the problem here is that there isn't much midband spectrum in the US for 5G. Midband spectrum is what operators in Europe, South Korea, China and elsewhere are either using or planning to use for 5G; that type of spectrum provides a good balance between speed and performance, unlike lowband spectrum (great for coverage but not very fast) and highband, mmWave spectrum (very fast but not good for coverage).
This all leaves US operators like Verizon and AT&T essentially stuck with mmWave as their only way to make 5G really stand apart from 4G.
And their nebulous comments about their 5G mmWave plans for 2020 raise the prospect that they may not be willing to take on the massive costs involved in significant mmWave network buildouts. After all, a widespread mmWave 5G network would require hundreds of thousands of new cell sites, each one plugged into a super-fast backhaul connection and topped with thousands of dollars of new transmission equipment. Tellingly, neither Verizon nor AT&T raised its capital expense budget for 2020. In fact, AT&T lowered its 2020 capex by $3 billion over 2019.
A 5G bifurcation
A new report from Wall Street research firm Susquehanna predicts Apple's mmWave iPhones won't hit the market until potentially early 2021. The firm reported that it believes the vendor's first batch of iPhones in 2020 will only support 5G in spectrum bands below 6GHz.
"The delay in the launch, according to our checks, stems from Apple's decision to in-source the Antenna-in-Package (AiP) modules instead of purchasing from the 3rd party," wrote Mehdi Hosseini, an analyst with Susquehanna, according to StreetInsider.com.
This situation highlights the line splitting the global 5G industry: There's sub-6GHz 5G, and there's mmWave 5G, and so far there are no US phones that can do both at the same time.
This won't last forever. Qualcomm's latest 5G chipset, the X55, promises to combine these two types of 5G onto one piece of silicon. But there's still a possibility that mmWave 5G will grow into the red-headed stepchild of the 5G family.
Indeed, according to the latest figures from the Global Mobile Suppliers Association (GSA), fully 77 operators around the world have officially deployed 3GPP-compliant 5G technology in their networks. But the firm said only 14 operators are known to be deploying 5G networks using mmWave spectrum.
This obviously creates a conundrum for 5G device makers that want to sell global devices and cut costs. The GSA reported that 60% of all announced 5G devices support sub-6GHz spectrum bands, but just 33% support mmWave spectrum.
Weak mmWave ambitions
This all again highlights the deafening silence from AT&T and Verizon. If those two big operators aren't very excited about mmWave 5G -- if they're not planning major, quantifiable mmWave 5G expansions in 2020 -- why should vendors, or anyone else for that matter, support 5G in those bands?
"What we are hearing from the customer, not just what we want to do, but what our customers want to do and their intensity and their ambition on millimeter-wave hasn't been that strong," said Liam Griffin, CEO of Skyworks Solutions, at a recent investor event, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript of his remarks. Skyworks is a California company that makes RF components for cellphones and wireless network equipment.
Griffin explained that Skyworks is investing in mmWave and keeping "a couple of small bets on the table" in the space, but that the company remains mostly focused on 5G below 6GHz.
I have no doubt that, eventually, 5G will make its way into a wide range of spectrum bands, from 600MHz to 28GHz, and beyond. After all, the development of 4G followed an almost identical trajectory. But if operators like Verizon and AT&T really believe in the mmWave 5G opportunity, they're going to need to make some tangible, quantifiable New Year's deployment resolutions for 2020. Otherwise, companies like Skyworks could come to see mmWave 5G as a box they won't have to check until next year. Or maybe the year after that... Or the one after that.