Verizon, T-Mobile battle for US 5G mindshare

Verizon enjoys a commanding lead in the court of public opinion when it comes to 5G, according to one analyst survey.

The financial analysts at Cowen reported that 43% of their survey respondents chose Verizon as having the best 5G network. AT&T was next with 26%, while T-Mobile trailed at 23%.

"While Verizon currently lacks the 5G coverage depth of its competitors ... it seems its continued '5G Built Right' [advertising] campaign, the announcement of its nationwide <6GHz 5G network (with DSS) at the iPhone 12 event, as well as residual goodwill from its 4G network dominance, continues to resonate with consumers," the analysts wrote. "To that end, we'd also note that in terms of overall brand rank, Verizon continues to hold a solid lead over its peers."

The Cowen analysts said they conducted the survey of 1,110 US mobile customers in early January.

However, the devil is in the details.

For example, Verizon's share of Americans' 5G sentiment has been falling. When asked "Who do you perceive to have the best 5G network?" the operator scored fully 47% in a study from the fourth quarter of 2019. Meanwhile, T-Mobile gained on the question this time, rising from just 20% in the fourth quarter of 2019. AT&T stayed relatively unchanged at 25%.

A problem of messaging

The question is important given how much money each operator is spending in an effort to shift consumer perception of their 5G network offerings. According to 2019 data from Kantar, AT&T was the third biggest advertiser in the US, trailing only Amazon and Comcast. Verizon clocked in at No. 7, while T-Mobile was No. 14.

Moreover, the issue has taken on a particularly competitive hue following the close of T-Mobile's acquisition of Sprint last year. The action opened the door for T-Mobile to begin a five-year, $60 billion network upgrade designed to allow the operator to provide the fastest 5G services across the nation at the lowest prices thanks to its new midband spectrum holdings. That network upgrade effort has already begun showing results: T-Mobile has boasted that fully 100 million Americans now have access to an upgraded 5G network providing average speeds around 300 Mbit/s and peaks of 1 Gbit/s.

Meantime, Verizon has been heavily advertising its 5G network in millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum that only covers an estimated 2 million Americans. Verizon's nationwide 5G services, working on its lowband spectrum holdings, aren't much faster than its 4G offerings.

Nevertheless, T-Mobile executives have acknowledged they face substantial headwinds on the topic, considering they will need to change entrenched consumer opinions about its network and how it compares with the network from Verizon.

"If you're playing a baseball game here and you have nine innings, this is inning number two," explained T-Mobile's Matt Staneff at a November investor event in discussing the operator's position against its competitors, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript. "When it comes to phones and networks and things are really going to get interesting when the results catch up, the reported speeds and things like that catch up to reality because it's a bit of a lagging indicator right now when you look at what's being advertised versus what's actually happening. And by the time we get into Q1, in Q2, it's going to be a completely different story for consumers."

Reading between the lines

Such comments help provide context for the war of words between Verizon and T-Mobile this week over a pair of recent network-performance tests. Verizon, for its part, boasted of recent RootMetrics tests showing its network was the "best overall network." Verizon also described RootMetrics as "the nation's most rigorous and scientific network tester."

But on the same day, T-Mobile cited data from rival network-monitoring company OpenSignal showing "T-Mobile customers now get the fastest 5G download speeds, fastest 5G upload speeds AND a 5G signal more often than anyone else."

"Opensignal's independent reports and insights are based on measurements of real experience," T-Mobile explained.

The situation highlights the substantial problems facing T-Mobile as it spends billions of dollars to upgrade its network – it will need to somehow convince customers that its efforts have catapulted it ahead of the competition. That is certainly its goal in touting OpenSignal's results.

Meanwhile, Verizon will need to blunt T-Mobile's attack with its own data, such as RootMetrics' findings.

Finally, as the analysts from Cowen noted, the situation will likely change again soon. Verizon is widely expected to walk away from the FCC's recent C-band auction for midband spectrum licenses with the most valuable winnings, spectrum that could allow Verizon to add dramatically faster speeds to its 5G network. That could put Verizon on more equal footing with T-Mobile in terms of network performance.

But whether such efforts will sway the court of public opinion remains to be seen.

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

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