This Year's 5G Phones Will Be Next Year's 5G Orphans

Mike Dano
11/4/2019

Aside from eye-watering price tags and mostly negligible 5G coverage areas, there's one other big reason you shouldn't purchase a 5G phone this year: It's probably going to be somewhat obsolete by next year.

Specifically, today's 5G phones from T-Mobile and Verizon won't support the spectrum bands that are going to take 5G nationwide next year. That means that this year's 5G early adopters are going to be orphaned next year because they own phones that are only capable of accessing a small (albeit speedy) portion of what will ultimately be operators' much wider 5G deployments.

What this all really comes down to is the frenetic pace that operators like T-Mobile and Verizon are working at when it comes to upgrading their wireless networks. In order to stay ahead of demand, and to prevent their networks from collapsing under ever-growing Internet traffic, wireless network operators are almost constantly adding new spectrum bands and technological capabilities to their networks, including 5G. While this clearly benefits new customers with new phones, customers who purchased their phones last year or the year before won't have access to those new, fancy services.

It's basically the same "keeping up with the Joneses" problem that current smartphone owners face every time Apple or Samsung introduce a new feature in their latest electronic gadgets.

But in the 5G space, the issue not only will impact early 5G users but also could help explain some of the ongoing mysteries surrounding Verizon's and AT&T's respective 5G strategies.

Lowband 5G: Better late than never
The clearest example of next year's 5G orphans are the customers who have purchased T-Mobile's Samsung Galaxy S10 5G phone. While there probably aren't very many of them out there, they own a $1,000 phone that won't be able to access the 600MHz 5G network that T-Mobile has promised to launch later this year. That's because the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G is only able to connect to T-Mobile's millimeter-wave (mmWave) 5G network and does not have the physical capability to connect to a 5G signal running over 600MHz.

"Early adopters got the Galaxy S10 5G so they could take advantage of millimeter wave 5G in parts of certain cities," T-Mobile wrote on the topic in response to questions from Light Reading. "They'll continue tapping into millimeter wave 5G where it's available, and they'll be able to take advantage of the 2.5GHz midband 5G spectrum we'll deploy as New T-Mobile [the company that would be created by the merger of Sprint and T-Mobile]. Where those customers don't get a 5G signal, the device will fly on T-Mobile's advanced nationwide LTE network."

Moreover, T-Mobile noted that it routinely offers phone trade-in deals to help customers get their hands on the latest devices, but that it hasn't announced anything specific to the Galaxy S10 5G or the OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren and the Samsung Galaxy Note10 Plus 5G (the first two T-Mobile phones that will connect to 5G on 600MHz).

At issue here is the fact that all 5G is not all the same. T-Mobile's 5G in its 600MHz spectrum ought to provide speeds of roughly 60-70 Mbit/s across wide swaths of the country. But its 5G network in millimeter-wave (mmWave) spectrum has been clocked at 250 Mbit/s, though it is only available in parts of six cities. That's because transmissions in highband, mmWave spectrum can carry enormous amounts of data but can't travel very far geographically, while transmissions in lowband spectrum like 600MHz can travel for miles but can't carry nearly as much data. This is simply due to the nature of physics in signal propagation.

Verizon remains a mystery
Verizon and AT&T sit in almost the exact same boat as T-Mobile, but the two operators aren't being nearly as forthright about the situation or their plans for the future. And part of the reason they appear to be embracing obfuscation is that they may not want to acknowledge that the 5G phones they're selling this year won't be able to access the broader 5G networks they're both planning to deploy in lowband spectrum in the coming years.

First up is Verizon, which has made 5G both a centerpiece of its advertising this year as well as the cornerstone of its wider corporate strategy. The company is in the midst of deploying mmWave 5G in up to 30 cities this year but has promised to launch 5G into all of its spectrum bands at some unspecified point in the future.

Verizon is currently selling mmWave 5G phones, including the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G and the LG V50 ThinQ 5G that do not support 5G in lowband spectrum like Verizon's 700MHz. The operator did not respond to questions from Light Reading about how this situation might affect its existing 5G customers as it expands its 5G network.

Verizon executives have repeatedly made it clear that 5G is really only unique when it is working in mmWave spectrum. Indeed, the operator's mmWave 5G network in Chicago has been clocked above 1 Gbit/s. That strategy stands in stark contrast to T-Mobile's 5G message, first laid out in 2017, that lowband 5G will ultimately be far more useful than mmWave 5G.

AT&T keeps consumers off 5G
The concern over 5G orphans could also explain why AT&T has restricted its own 5G mmWave offering only to business customers.

Although AT&T continues to claim that it was "first" to 5G, the company is not selling its mmWave 5G services to regular consumers. Instead, its growing 5G mmWave network -- available in parts of roughly two dozen cities and counting -- is reserved only for business customers.

AT&T's consumer-focused 5G strategy today involves simply rebranding its LTE service with the "5G E" label -- a tactic that has earned AT&T widespread condemnation but that also tracks with the operator's deployment of vast swaths of unused spectrum for LTE. That deployment appears to have significantly juiced the performance of AT&T's LTE network and has been cited as one of the reasons for the operator's relatively solid performance in the wireless industry so far this year.

AT&T could well open sales of "real" 5G to regular customers when it launches 5G in its lowband spectrum in the middle of next year. (AT&T still has not said what spectrum band it will use for that lowband 5G launch.)

Sprint is currently not planning to orphan any 5G phones, but that's mainly because it has not announced 5G plans beyond its initial nine covered cities. Sprint is using 2.5GHz for its 5G deployment, a band often described as "Goldilocks" spectrum because it toes a line between broad geographic coverage and fast download speeds. However, Sprint continues to suffer financially, and most Wall Street analysts believe that it ultimately will not be able to survive as a standalone nationwide wireless network operator, much less expand its 5G network. Indeed, this is one of the factors that pushed Sprint and T-Mobile to their proposed merger.

The only constant is change
When put into the broader picture, 5G is just the latest in a long line of technologies that has produced orphans in the wireless industry. After all, AT&T counted 4 million customers on its 2G network, mostly IoT devices, when it turned off 2G services in 2017. Those devices simply lost service, whereas this year's 5G early adopters will still be able to access 4G LTE well into the future (no operator has announced any plans to shutter 4G). They just won't be able to access 5G in new spectrum bands.

So does any of this matter? It might to those customers who purchased the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G or the LG V50 ThinQ 5G this year, given that they spent a lot of money for a top-of-the-line 5G smartphone.

But that's the nature of technology. It evolves. Just ask anyone who purchased Apple's AirPods in early October, days before the company announced its new AirPod Pros.

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

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Mike Dano
Mike Dano
11/5/2019 | 8:48:29 AM
Update
I updated the article for clarity.