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The Edge

5G in the US will get a lot clearer by March 31 – here's why

AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile have all promised to hold expansive analyst events – where they will likely discuss their long-term 5G strategies – sometime in the coming weeks.

Importantly, the events have all been timed to coincide with the FCC's announcement of the winners of its massive, $81 billion C-band auction for 5G spectrum.

Thus, there's a good chance that the overall trajectory of 5G in the US market will gain much more clarity by the start of the second quarter. That's important considering that the technology – first launched in 2018 and loudly marketed by all the carriers – hasn't yet provided any concrete boost to operators' bottom lines.

Wrapping the C-band

The financial analysts at Raymond James estimated that the ongoing "assignment phase" of the FCC's C-band auction should end by February 17, based on bidders' current activity. Although the primary "clock phase" portion of the auction – dubbed Auction 107 by the FCC – ended in January at a record-setting $81 billion in total bids, the assignment phase is designed to allow bidders that won generic spectrum blocks to select their preferred combinations of frequency-specific license assignments. The assignment phase won't change the overall bid totals.

A February 17 end date for the assignment phase "suggests we could know the detailed results (including high bidder information) by Friday, February 26," wrote the Raymond James analysts in a note to investors Thursday. "The auction quiet period is scheduled to end 10 business days after the details are announced, so bidders might be able to finally discuss the auction (and hold analyst days) starting the week of March 15."

Indeed, executives from all three operators recently offered tantalizing hints about their upcoming analyst days, though they all also acknowledged the FCC's "quiet period" that prevents them from discussing the C-band auction.

"We're going to be seeing you for a much more in-depth discussion at our analyst day coming up just next month, our whole team is really looking forward to being with you," T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert said earlier this month on the operator's fourth quarter conference call.

"We expect updates on spectrum deployment plans, network strategies, financing plans and the impact on leverage targets," the Raymond James analysts wrote of the analyst days.

So what might the industry get out of each of the carrier's analyst days? Most importantly, executives will likely discuss how and when they might construct 5G networks in the C-band spectrum they're expected to win. Verizon is widely expected to spend $40 billion or more for the bulk of the licenses up for grabs, including most, if not all, of the 100MHz that's scheduled to be available for commercial operations by the end of 2021. AT&T is expected to be the second-largest bidder, followed by T-Mobile and, potentially, Dish Network. The nation's two big cable operators – Comcast and Charter Communications, which jointly participated in the C-band auction – are not expected to win much C-band spectrum.

What to expect

But analyst days are often lengthy affairs, designed to provide investors deep details – including extensive financial figures – on overall corporate strategies for the coming year. Each company's ultimate goal is to encourage investors to purchase company stock on the belief that revenues and profits will grow. Thus, here are some of the topics that each of the nation's big 5G operators might cover during their respective analyst days:

AT&T

  • Aside from its C-band plans, AT&T could also disclose how it might deliver 5G services over its millimeter wave (mmWave) and lowband spectrum holdings. Of all the big 5G operators, AT&T has provided the fewest details about its 5G buildout.
  • AT&T will undoubtedly face questions about its HBO Max strategy, as well as how that offering might tie into its 5G services.
  • AT&T has so far avoided an extensive launch of fixed wireless services, unlike T-Mobile and Verizon. Investors likely will learn whether C-band spectrum will change that position.
  • AT&T may also provide clarity on topics ranging from edge computing to private networking.

T-Mobile

Verizon

  • Importantly, Verizon has already outlined its 2021 buildout targets for its 5G offerings in mmWave and fixed wireless. If the operator purchases C-band licenses in the A Block, it likely won't be able to activate commercial services on those licenses until the end of 2021 at the earliest. Nonetheless, Verizon is widely expected to add 5G operations in the C-band to its network as quickly as possible, and would likely outline those buildout plans during its analyst day.
  • Verizon is the only US operator to hint at the possibility of charging extra for 5G connections. Although the operator has backtracked from a wide application of that extra fee, Verizon will likely face questions about whether it might use a C-band buildout to reconsider that effort.
  • Finally, Verizon likely will also discuss new mobile strategies, including its entry into the prepaid space via its still-pending purchase of TracFone.

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

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