Industry Voices—Lowenstein: The rest of 2018 will be much more interesting in wireless than the first half

The second half of 2018 will likely get interesting. (Getty Images)

From the standpoint of activity that impacts customers, the first half of 2018 was sort of meh. The focus was more on major industry M&A: the question of whether the AT&T-Time Warner deal would be approved, and of course the announcement of the T-Mobile/Sprint deal. On the service provider side, the second-quarter results were for the most part solid, as operators held the line on price. There were no blockbuster new product or service plan introductions and no game-changing new phones. Charter launched its Spectrum Mobile MVNO service … and it looks very much like Comcast’s Xfinity Mobile.

The second half of 2018 is going to be a lot more interesting, as there have been a lot of “later this year” announcements that promise some pretty exciting stuff … later this year. Most anticipated, of course, is the 5G-Palooza that is likely to dominate the wireless news, starting with MWCA in September. Verizon has promised mmWave-based FWA in at least three cities in 2018. AT&T has pledged to roll out Mobile 5G using mmWave in 12 markets by the end of the year, and T-Mobile has also announced that later in 2018 it will launch some flavor of 5G using its 600 MHz spectrum. And the FCC has promised 5G mmWave auctions this year, starting Nov. 14 for 28 MHz, with 24 MHz following immediately thereafter.

We are going to learn a lot more about this first wave of 5G by the end of the year. Here are my biggest questions:

  • In the case of Verizon’s FWA, it will be very interesting to see what their go-to-market will look like. How many households will the service address in Sacramento, Los Angeles, and Houston, their very spread-out initial launch cities? How well will mmWave penetrate buildings? How will Verizon attempt to capture market share, given that they’re going into markets that are already pretty well served by broadband? Knowing Verizon, it won’t be via a discounted price plan but perhaps creative bundles with Verizon’s wireless service, unique content deals, and the possibility of faster broadband to select homes.
  • In the case of AT&T and T-Mobile, how “5G” will this first wave of 5G NR be? Will it be a significant step up from today’s gigabit LTE service, which, with all cylinders firing, delivers dramatic speeds and latency improvements in its own right? We’re hoping this is actual 5G and not marketing 5G.
  • How broad will the initial 5G coverage be in the launch markets? Going back to the early 4G days, will it be Verizon-level coverage (pretty good swath of sites) or Clearwire-level coverage (pretty Swiss-cheesy)?
  • What devices are going to be available at launch? Sure, there will be dongles (who buys those these days?), but will there be any phones, and who will be the first? It will be a major moment when 5G is launched but less exciting if a 5G phone can’t be on your holiday wish list.
  • How will 5G be positioned in the market? True-blue network slicing will not be available at launch, but it will be interesting to see if, for the first time, MNOs borrow a page from the fixed broadband world and use 5G to offer premium-priced mobile broadband service plans. In T-Mobile’s case, will 5G be the opportunity to launch their OTT TV product, based on the Layer3 acquisition that closed earlier this year?

5G won’t be the only network-related development. Operators will announce a lot more markets that are LAA-enabled, and it will be interesting to see whether there are any distinct offers or plans that come with that or whether it’s positioned as a relatively seamless speed or capacity enhancement (on capable devices). It is also possible that initial CBRS services, using the General Authorized Access portion of the band, will be launched before the end of the year. At the very least, we should have greater clarity on the final rules for 3.5 GHz and the PAL auction timetable.

The last thing on my network list is FirstNet. It’s been sorta quiet on the FirstNet front since launch, but AT&T said on its second-quarter earnings call that FirstNet will be added to 12,000-15,000 sites by the end of the year. Sometime in the next 6 to 9 months, the market is going to be looking for some indication of FirstNet takeup (either converting from unlicensed or taking subscribers from Verizon). And also, what is the status of Verizon’s plan to build a parallel public safety network?

On the device front, 2018 has been meh so far, as well. Samsung did release the Galaxy S9 and S9+. They’re fantastic phones, but they're mainly iterative, not offering anywhere near the generational change we saw with the S8 line. And nothing hinted at WWDC or the various Apple rumor boards suggests that we’ll see anything game-changing with the expected fall new iPhone announcement(s). Actually, the one near-sure thing is that it will be annoyingly timed to be during, but separate from, the September CTIA/MWCA show. So book that LA-SF shuttle now. (Sorry, no bullet train yet.)

Actually, the subject of the biggest buzz might be the Magic Leap One AR device, which is expected to become available by the end of this year, with AT&T as the exclusive wireless distributor. It’s also possible the Apple-Samsung phone cartel could be disrupted by some other OEM announcing the first 5G phone. The Motorola Z3 has 5G branding on it, but of course the question is “how 5G will it be?” With no firm announcements from handset OEMs on 5G product, you might be thinking a lot more about dongles in 2018 than you have in recent years. Or, some fun 5G-enabled laptops.

Expect continued action on the M&A front. AT&T is moving ahead with its Warner Media strategy, notwithstanding the DOJ’s (ridiculous) appeal. There will be other deals in the content landscape. Most importantly, we will have a pretty good idea by the end of 2018 about the chances of TMO-Sprint getting done. (I predict a positive outcome.)

Finally, I have three wishes/requests of the major U.S. mobile operators:

  • Verizon: Give the broadband folks a run for their money! That market could use some competition, and it’s not going to come from much more in the way of FTTH launches.
  • AT&T: Can I add to the chorus of “We support the TW acquisition, but please, please don’t mess with HBO”? (OK, give them more money but don’t charge more.) I’d ask John Stankey to look at Disney-Pixar (mostly left it alone) as an example rather than Disney-Lucasfilm (diluted the product by turning it into a Star Wars factory).
  • T-Mobile/Sprint: Make a good case for the Sprint deal. Even Sprint has admitted that survival as a standalone operator will be challenging. A combination is good for the industry and for consumers and should get done.

Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, is managing director of Mobile Ecosystem. Click here to subscribe to his free Lens on Wireless monthly newsletter, or follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein.

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceWireless.