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Here's what to expect from the Big 4 carriers as Verizon, AT&T, and others battle for 5G dominance

Business Insider | May 17, 2019, 04.30PM IST

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  • Mobile 5G service is finally live, although consumers can't be blamed for not noticing yet.
  • But over the next several months, many more cities will get the sped-up mobile service as the "Big 4" wireless carriers grow their footprints.
  • Here's what to expect from 5G at Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint in the year ahead.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

So far, 5G has been more of a marketing effort by the big wireless carriers than a reality for consumers. But that's poised to change this year.

"5G up to now has been an exercise in branding. Spring is the time 5G actually goes live," Jeff Moore, a telecom analyst with Wave7, told Business Insider.

Here's what expect from Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint in race to 5G dominance in the year ahead.

Verizon

Verizon is most closely associated with 5G, having made 5G the centerpiece of its business while rivals companies have focused on growing their media businesses. It was first to launch a home 5G broadband service, in October, followed by mobile 5G service in Chicago and Minneapolis in April. By the end of the year, Verizon says it will launch 5G coverage in a total of 30 US cities.

Verizon touts its "Ultra Wideband" service that's designed to combine high-frequency spectrum, small-cell transmitters, and a fiber network, as superior. Sprint, meanwhile, uses lower-frequency spectrum for 5G.

Verizon's rollout has been underwhelming. Initially, people could only access the network with a single phone, the Moto Z3, and an additional piece of technology, the 5G Moto mod. (On Thursday, Verizon started to sell an additional 5G-capable phone, the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G.) And analysts who tested the mobile 5G service said they had limited ability to access the faster network.

Some analysts believe Verizon will adopt a lower-wavelength spectrum because the high-frequency spectrum can travel only short distances. When some analysts tested service in Chicago, they found they could only access 5G within about 350 feet of the small cells. Some analysts also doubt Verizon's plans to charge $10 more a month for service is sustainable.

A spokesman for Verizon said the company is happy with the results in Chicago and Minneapolis and that it already said it would use lower-frequency spectrum in the future.

AT&T

AT&T first offered mobile 5G in December, just ahead of Verizon, and plans to have coverage in 21 states by the end of 2019. AT&T says it will have nationwide 5G service in early 2020.

But as with Verizon, the knock on the higher-frequency spectrum is that it's expensive and can be hard to access inside buildings.

"There is a zero chance that 5G is a ubiquitous technology" by 2021, MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett said on"Squawk Box."

The carrier also fought a PR and legal headache spurred by its launch of "5GE", or 5G Evolution. It's not true 5G, just an improved execution of 4G that delivers faster speeds and has been around for years, Moore said.

Business Insider reached out to AT&T for comment; it hasn't responded by publication.

Sprint

Sprint's strategy differs from that of Verizon's and AT&T's in that it's using lower-band spectrum. That allows consumers to access service in larger coverage areas. That's why Wave7's Moore thinks Sprint's 5G launch will be far more impactful than Verizon's.

Still, the lower-frequency spectrum means lower peak speeds than Verizon and AT&T's offerings.

Sprint's 5G footprint also also will be small to start, at about 1,000 square miles, Moore said. By the end of May, Sprint is set to launch 5G mobile service in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, and Kansas City. By the end of June, it plans to add New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Phoenix, and Washington, DC, to its 5G footprint.

One of the biggest decisions awaiting the telecom sector is whether the FCC will block the proposed T-Mobile-Sprint merger. Both carriers have continued to talk about their 5G strategies to varying degrees. Sprint has said it plans to proceed with its 5G strategy regardless of whether the merger is approved.

A spokesman for Sprint did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile said it plans to launch in-home 5G and that it could have 10 million households by 2024 with the service; it hasn't specified when it plans to launch mobile 5G.

The Verizon and potential T-Mobile launches are the first credible forays by traditional wireless carriers into the in-home broadband market, analysts at Cowen wrote. This threatens the cable industry, which dominates this part of the industry, they wrote.

But T-Mobile's plan with to launch in-home 5G across 10 million households is contingent on it closing the Sprint merger, Moore said.

A spokesman for T-Mobile did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Looking ahead

While 5G's initial benefit is faster mobile service, the idea is that it will eventually be applied to smart devices and mean cheaper products for consumers.

Cowen analysts pointed to an example from Verizon that the cost of a camera could decrease tenfold by shifting most of the central processing to the cloud.

But such new opportunities won't be realized until 2022 or 2023, the analysts wrote.

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