T-Mobile calls out Verizon on 5G 'bluster'

Say what you will of the finger-pointing and name-calling that has come to typify T-Mobile US executives, especially Twitter rock star CEO John Legere, but last week, they kind of nailed it.

Previously, Legere and his colleagues at T-Mobile called out Verizon executives for blowing too much steam when it comes to 5G and all that it offers. Publicly using less profanity, AT&T executives also have warned about promising too much and under-delivering when it comes to 5G – especially given that the standards haven't yet been written.

During Verizon's first-quarter conference call on April 21, Verizon CFO Fran Shammo clarified that Verizon is testing 5G technologies this year with the goal of having an initial fixed wireless pilot starting in 2017. "I want to reiterate that this is a fixed wireless, which is really one of the first cases that we see, it's really not about mobile, it's really around fixed wireless," he said.

T-Mobile executives interpreted that as "walking back" a bit. "I'm glad that Verizon finally copped to the fact that a lot of that 5G bluster they've been putting into the market place is actually really about home broadband because they've been running around saying that 5G is about to launch any second now and getting people fired up when really what they're talking about are fixed station modems at fixed locations and it's going to be a little bit more time before they're able to get it to mobile as the industry matures," T-Mobile COO Mike Sievert told analysts during the company's quarterly call with analysts last week.

Sievert was referring to Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam's statement on Jim Cramer's "Mad Money" CNBC show in February, when McAdam was talking about 1-gig throughput and instant replay ability on handsets coming in 2017. Verizon has been working with the NFL and doing work at two stadiums -- Houston where next year's Super Bowl is due to be played, and Minneapolis, site of the 2018 Super Bowl. At one of those two games, "we'll do a gigabit to your  handset, 200 times more throughput," McAdam told Cramer. (Verizon has often looked to Super Bowls to demonstrate cutting-edge technologies, which sometimes pans out and sometimes doesn't.)

But wait a minute. Is T-Mobile pointing all this stuff out because it's a sore loser? It doesn't have anywhere near the fiber that Verizon has, and many people are saying that's going to be key to 5G.

According to T-Mobile, of course, the answer is no. "We have great backhaul powering the fastest LTE network and we don't foresee problems scaling that into the future," a spokesperson tells me.

While T-Mobile has its own ulterior motives for saying things, I'm willing to bet that 5G is going to be about a whole lot of things (hopefully not everything but the kitchen sink though), so I wouldn't lay it all on fiber. And it's entirely possible that Verizon told its executives to dial it back a notch, or at least clarify what they're talking about doing with 5G.  

Verizon executives were at last month's Brooklyn 5G Summit where many stakeholders throughout the wireless industry discussed technology and strategy. Verizon acknowledged there are risks racing into 5G when the standards are still being written – it might not be interoperable or match the final specs – but it's a risk it's willing to take. AT&T is sticking to its standards guns, saying a standards-based approach is the best way to achieve the economies of scale it needs, as well as the certainty that exists by going down the licensed spectrum path. Unlicensed technologies, while they serve a purpose, don't exactly provide the business case that a huge operator must have in order to successfully deploy 5G and Internet of Things (IoT) services.

The truth is, everybody is saying things for their own benefit and disparaging competitors to make a buck. Some things are true and some are half-true. One thing is for sure. Operators should keep their messaging on track in terms of what next-generation technology can bring and don't overpromise.

A lot of people are suspicious, rightfully so, of what can be done in the higher millimeter wave spectrum. Experts say that mobility can be done in the higher bands, but it's not easy and it's not cheap. That's why most carriers and vendors initially are focused on fixed wireless. There are also those naysayers who insist quality mobility will never truly be achieved in the higher bands; it's the job of smart engineers to prove them wrong.

Either way, since the standards for 5G are still being developed, can we agree that we're all still trying to figure out what 5G is going to be? And let's not repeat the same things we did with 4G, calling things 4G when they technically didn't meet the standards definition. But I'm afraid it's probably already too late for that.--Monica