Verizon Has a Tough 5G Transition Ahead – Report

Verizon's positioning as providing the "Nation's Best Network" is at risk in the 5G era, according to one industry analyst.

"In the race to 5G, Verizon risks being overtaken by AT&T," Craig Moffett, analyst with MoffettNathanson, said in a report issued Thursday. Moffett, in his report, attempts to size up the shape of the evolving US 5G market and analyze the sources of mid-band spectrum that is (or could) become available to Verizon and others.

While mmWave spectrum provides lots of capacity, it's limited coverage and makes it best suited for deployments in dense cities. In Moffett's opinion, AT&T has the best mix of mmWave spectrum (for capacity) and mid-band and low-band spectrum (for coverage). Millimeter wave spectrum, he added, "is best suited for a supporting role in 5G, not a starring one."

In the coming years, "Verizon risks losing, if not the reality of 5G, then at least the marketing war," Moffett wrote, noting that lower frequency coverage bands might not offer much of a step up from LTE in user experience.

But without unused mid-band spectrum to tap into, Verizon will be relegated to refarming its existing spectrum and running the risk of "robbing Peter to pay Paul."

"For the next few years, AT&T and T-Mobile could have a better transition-to-5G story than does Verizon," Moffett wrote, adding that AT&T and T-Mobile are positioned to have something "like ubiquitous coverage long before Verizon can."

Mulling the mid-band
Moffett also analyzed some of the sources of mid-band spectrum that's out there.

Though Dish Network has stressed that it wants to build wireless networks and not sell its capacity to the highest bidder, Dish's spectrum is Verizon's "only near-term mid-band option," he wrote. What's more, Moffett said it's also not clear if Verizon or AT&T would be allowed to buy Dish's spectrum, anyway, even if it were to come up for sale.

Ligado Networks's plans involving 40MHz of the lower mid-band spectrum is another potential source as the company presses the FCC to approve its license modification proposal for 5G services.

Moffett said the "best long-term hope" for mid-band spectrum for 5G is the C-band, given its wide, contiguous blocks of spectrum. However, availability for C-band spectrum for 5G could still be years away, he pointed out.

He's not overly enthusiastic about the use of the 3.5GHz CBRS band given its more massive small cell deployment requirements compared to, say, the much smaller number of cells needed in the 2.5GHz band to provide a similar amount of coverage.

The analyst, meanwhile, still gives a coin's flip chance that the T-Mobile/Sprint deal will go through. If it doesn't, Sprint will "likely be a loser," and T-Mobile will survive but likely need more mid-band spectrum, Moffett said.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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