The Race to 5G Will Intensify in 2019 as All Carriers Plan to Unveil Networks

After months of hype, the next generation of wireless service will finally become a reality

2019 will see the race toward 5G intensify.
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After months of hype about instant connectivity and super-speed downloads, the next generation of wireless service will finally become a reality in 2019.

All four major U.S. carriers have vowed to kick off or expand their respective 5G networks in the coming year, and most major phone manufacturers are set to release their first 5G-enabled phones (Apple, the reported exception, is said to be waiting until 2020 to bring 5G to the iPhone).

While many of next year’s fledgling efforts may not live up to the technology’s loftiest expectations, 5G is expected to eventually reach download speeds between 10 and 100 times faster than what’s currently available, with a load lag time of less than a millisecond. Experts say that kind of unprecedented interconnectivity could usher in a host of new emerging tech markets, ranging from driverless car communication and power grid administration to mixed-reality streaming and remote healthcare.

But those sorts of possibilities could take years to materialize. If what carriers have unveiled so far is any indication, expect the first 5G offerings to be spotty in coverage and maybe only marginally quicker than 4G-LTE in practice, despite higher promised theoretical speeds.

Here’s an overview of what the wireless industry has planned for next year:

AT&T

AT&T became the first carrier to deploy a mobile, standards-based 5G network in late December, narrowly beating the end-of-the-year deadline the company set for itself.

But like many early 5G milestones, the announcement came with a few caveats. For one, the service can only be accessed through a 5G-enabled hotspot device until compatible smartphones hit the market next year. It is also currently limited to early-adopting customers and businesses in parts of 12 U.S. cities. While an AT&T spokesperson said all subscribers in those areas are eligible for the 90-day free-of-charge rollout, the company isn’t entirely clear on how the initial pool of trial participants is being chosen.

Once the initial rollout period is over in March, AT&T will start selling a 15-gigabyte 5G data plan for $70 per month with the hotspot priced at $499. The company has made deals to release one Samsung 5G phone in the first half of the year and another in the second half. Additionally, the carrier will expand the coverage area to seven more cities sometime in the first half of 2019.

AT&T is also working to rebrand what is technically its “4G LTE-A” service (LTE stands for long-term evolution and A stands for advanced) as “5G-E” (E for evolution) in close to 400 markets around the United States. That mostly means that AT&T subscribers with the latest Android devices will see a new 5G indicator in the upper corner of their screens, but performance won’t quite match the standards necessary for 5G.

Verizon

Verizon introduced the country’s first commercial 5G service in October with its residential package that’s offered in four U.S. cities. Unlike AT&T’s mobile offering, the service is designed to beam into subscriber homes in place of a terrestrial internet connection, though it’s currently operating on a separate standard from the industry consensus for fixed 5G. Verizon has said it plans to move to the more widely accepted benchmarks at some point, and the company is currently working to double in-home speeds by the middle of next year. Verizon’s Home service costs $70 per month or $50 per month for customers who also have mobile packages.

Meanwhile, the nation’s biggest carrier is busily readying its mobile network for an early 2019 debut with its own hotspot device from Inseego and a deal with Samsung to offer a 5G phone sometime in the first half of the year.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile CEO John Legere and his notoriously confrontational marketing department have relentlessly mocked the company’s two bigger rivals for the asterisks that come with their initial 5G offerings. But with a nationwide 5G rollout goal by the end of 2019, T-Mobile isn’t looking for a head-to-head race with either competitor.

While AT&T and Verizon are building their 5G networks on so-called “millimeter waves”—high frequencies that carry more data but travel shorter distances and require many more antennas—T-Mobile is attempting to do so initially on more traditional low-band spectrum. The company passed a major hurdle toward this goal in November when it claimed to have broadcast the first-ever 5G signal on these lower frequency waves.

Legere has touted this roadmap as a more broadly accessible path to 5G, since waves of lower frequencies tend to work better outside of dense, urban areas. “The other guys focus on 5G for the few, reaching just a few people in small areas of a handful of cities,” Legere boasted in a recent statement.

Yet while each carrier is taking a different approach to the first leg of the 5G race, all four carriers have said that their fully completed networks should be able to broadcast across a range of spectrum bands.

This argument is also one of the central planks in the case T-Mobile and Sprint are making to the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission as to why the government should approve their blockbuster merger. The deal would create a combined company slightly smaller than Verizon or AT&T in subscribers, but the two companies argue that their pooled low- and mid-band spectrum rights would give the country an overall lead in the global arms race to 5G. While the deal is still facing plenty of regulatory scrutinies, an approval would likely be a game-changer for the 5G race in 2019.

Sprint

Sprint is aiming for an initial rollout of its 5G network in seven cities in early 2019, with more markets to be added throughout the year. Like T-Mobile, the company is not primarily focused on millimeter waves, and its first offerings will instead operate on mid-band spectrum. The carrier is also planning to unveil its own HTC-branded hotspot at the beginning of 2019, an LG 5G smartphone in the first half of the year and a Samsung phone at some point throughout the year. Any of these plans could change, however, depending on the outcome of the company’s merger bid.

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