The biggest news for the U.S. wireless industry to come out of Barcelona this year was FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai announcing that he’s planning for wireless auctions to start in November 2018 in the 28 GHz band, followed immediately by auctions for spectrum in the 24 GHz band. Access to this spectrum will be a benefit to the U.S. mobile operators looking to build out mmWave networks. It’s also a benefit to Verizon’s competitors because it can fill the gap some of the other carriers have in their spectrum portfolios. Giving U.S. mobile carriers access to these mmWave bands is crucial if the U.S. is serious about not falling behind China and others in the race for global 5G leadership.
But first, Congress has to fix the upfront payment issue by May 13. On one hand, the FCC is required to deposit auction down payments in interest-bearing accounts, but current financial regulations do not allow that. The FCC Reauthorization Bill would allow the FCC to deposit the payments directly into the U.S. Treasury. This is a small but vital cog in the system that will help to decide if the U.S. will be at the forefront or the second row when it comes to 5G leadership.
This announcement by the FCC chairman follows a series of other, noteworthy announcements. First from AT&T, which previously announced it was launching 5G in a dozen markets this year with a hotspot device, said that it was launching in the specific markets of Dallas, Atlanta, and Waco among the first wave of roll-out. T-Mobile announced that it would have 5G in 30 markets in 2018 but that the devices for it would come in early 2019. T-Mobile customers in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Las Vegas would be the “first to experience it.” All along, Sprint made public that it would launch “5G-ready” markets in 2019 in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., with devices also coming in the first half of 2019. Meanwhile, Verizon didn’t update its 5G plans beyond launching 3 to 5 fixed 5G markets this year, with Sacramento being the launch market.
What this shows is that marketing and spin has taken over the 5G world just as we feared. While all carriers are deploying antennas that can transmit and receive 5G signals for at least one more year, one carrier declares it will be launching 5G-ready markets. What is is a “5G-ready market”? 4G LTE or LTE+ with MIMO? We know that 5G smartphones will only be available in 2019 due to chipset availability. So AT&T takes a page of out Verizon’s 2010 LTE launch book and starts with hotspots. Verizon is probably going to follow, but T-Mobile is crying foul. T-Mobile is now the leader in the number of announced markets without a device. A network without a device is a one-handed clap.
We also know this will change very quickly. Every carrier will go for nationwide coverage as quickly as they can. The biggest bottleneck is the availability of chipsets in the given spectrum bands. If they have the chipsets, they will build. All will start in the 28 GHz and 39 GHz bands, because that’s where the chipsets will be available first. T-Mobile announced that it will build its coverage layer in 600 MHz. It is safe to assume Verizon and AT&T will build their coverage layer in 700 MHz and 850 MHz. Sprint will probably either have to use its small 800 MHz license or use PCS spectrum to get nationwide coverage.
Will we get faster speeds out of a low-band 5G network? Yes—after all, 5G is more than twice as spectrally efficient as 4G, but we will not get the eye-popping 100x speeds that we will get in the mmWave bands. The trade-off is really between speed and coverage. The higher the speed, the smaller the area that cell sector will cover. In order to optimize user experience and the limits of physics, all of the carriers will use some of their midband spectrum from what they have in 1800 to 2500 MHz, combine it with LAA and whatever the FCC auctions in the 3.4 to 4.2 GHz band. It doesn’t need an announcement to figure that out. It will be a network of networks.
At the heels of trials with operators and at the Olympics in PyeongChang, both Qualcomm and Intel demonstrated 5G connections. At the Qualcomm booth, a speedtest showed more than 3 Gbps (3,000 Mbps) and 2 ms of latency compared to 150 Mbps and 57 ms latency for Cat9 LTE. Qualcomm showed some wins with the new Samsung Galaxy S9 and the Asus ZenFone 5 with the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chipsets. LG launched the V30S ThinQ. a slightly improved model of last year’s flagship phone, with the old Snapdragon 835 chipset. Nokia launched several devices ranging from the top of the line Scirocco to a relaunch of a 20-year-old phone, the slider Nokia 8110.
Ericsson and ODG had a very cool demo that showed the promise of 5G by making augmented reality glasses much smaller, lighter and more powerful by moving the processing from the glasses to a server right at the edge of the network. 5G has less than 1 ms of airlink latency which makes the decoupling of glass and processing unnoticeable but makes the compute power significantly larger as it is no longer constrained by the glasses. By moving both processing and the needed batteries to the edge, the glasses become much more tolerable to wear for longer periods of time.
The Mobile Authentication Taskforce consisting of AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon announced that their mobile identity platform would be launched by the end of 2018, with developers being able to create solutions for the launch later this year. Mobile identity has the potential to revolutionize how we authenticate ourselves with other systems, such as computer logins, ATM PINs or pay in stores. Mobile identity promises improved security and greater convenience through the reduced use of passwords as a means to determine who is authorized and who isn’t.
Overall, it was a so-so year for Mobile World Congress from a U.S. perspective. We are getting more spectrum if Congress makes it possible for bidders to pay for it. There is a lot of anticipation for 5G, which hopefully will translate into a lot of tangible news for Mobile World Congress 2019.
Roger Entner is the Founder and Analyst at Recon Analytics. He received an Honorary Doctor of Science from Heriot-Watt University. Recon Analytics specializes in fact-based research and the analysis of disparate data sources to provide unprecedented insights into the world of telecommunications. Follow Roger on Twitter @rogerentner.
"Industry Voices" are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by Fierce staff. They do not represent the opinions of Fierce.