5G questions hover over T-Mobile, but company promises surprises

T-Mobile store (Mike Dano / FierceWireless)
T-Mobile has promised 5G news next week. (Mike Dano/FierceWireless)

Qualcomm’s initial batch of 5G chips won’t support 5G operations in the 600 MHz spectrum that T-Mobile has described as the foundation of its 5G plans, according to a new report.

Moreover, T-Mobile was silent this week amid a bevy of 5G smartphone announcements from the likes of Verizon and AT&T.

However, T-Mobile officials have promised that the company has other options, as well as some surprises up its sleeve.

“Sorry, we didn't have time for the sideshow,” T-Mobile’s John Legere tweeted in response to questions about the company’s absence from a Qualcomm press event this week. “@NevilleRay and team are busy working to actually build nationwide 5G. Will have an update next week on 5G device(s) and more. Stay tuned.”

Legere’s statement came shortly before PCMag reported that Qualcomm’s X50 modem—the company’s first flagship 5G chip—doesn’t support “sub-6GHz FDD,” which is the category of spectrum that T-Mobile’s 600 MHz operations fall into.

In response to questions from FierceWireless on the topic, a T-Mobile representative pointed out that the operator has a multiband spectrum strategy for 5G and is not solely focused on 600 MHz for 5G.

At the beginning of this year, T-Mobile outlined its general 5G plans: Its network vendors Ericsson and Nokia will build a 5G network across the carrier’s 600 MHz, 28 GHz and 39 GHz spectrum in 30 cities—including New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Las Vegas—during 2018. And T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray said the operator expects to sell compatible smartphones for the service in 2019.

Thus, it may be reasonable to assume that T-Mobile’s initial smartphones may not access the carrier’s 600 MHz spectrum and instead will connect to its 28 GHz and 39 GHz spectrum holdings. However, T-Mobile’s millimeter-wave spectrum holdings are scattered across the country; for example, the company inked an agreement in February to buy 28-31 GHz spectrum in Ohio, which the carrier said it plans to use for 5G.

T-Mobile’s relative 5G silence stands in contrast to announcements this week from AT&T, Verizon and others. Specifically, Verizon kicked off the week with a promise to sell a 5G smartphone from Samsung in the first half of this year. AT&T responded to that announcement by saying that it would sell a Samsung 5G smartphone in the first half and the second half of next year. Interestingly, though, AT&T clarified that its Samsung phone scheduled for a second-half release would “be able to access both 5G mmWave and sub-6 GHz,” potentially a reflection of Qualcomm’s timeline to support 5G below 6 GHz. (Qualcomm remains the world’s largest smartphone modem supplier.)

Importantly, AT&T has promised to launch commercial mobile 5G services by the end of this year. T-Mobile hasn’t yet scheduled a specific launch date but has promised that it would offer nationwide 5G service by 2020. And Verizon has promised to turn on commercial mobile 5G services within the next six months.

Ultimately, it’s clear that all of the nation’s major wireless network operators are rushing toward 5G service launches. But this week’s 5G announcements likely reflect the disparate spectrum and deployment strategies that are being employed. For example, Verizon owns vast millimeter-wave spectrum holdings across the country thanks to its acquisitions of XO and Straight Path. AT&T and T-Mobile, meantime, hold some millimeter-wave spectrum, but they are both likely to supplement their 5G offerings with either their existing LTE networks or with 5G services running in their existing low- or midband spectrum holdings. (And most providers may increase their millimeter-wave spectrum holdings through the FCC’s ongoing spectrum auctions.)

Sprint, for its part, has promised to launch 5G in its 2.5 GHz holdings in nine cities in the first half of next year.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that, much like the rollout of LTE, 5G will probably be deployed in select spectrum bands initially and then in additional spectrum bands as time goes by. And 5G devices will likely follow a similar path: They will initially support 5G in select spectrum bands and will expand that support to additional spectrum bands as time goes on.