Big 4 need to manage 5G customer expectations - analyst

Carriers need to manage customer expectations for 5G speed and reliability, or they risk ending up with clientele that are sorely disappointed.

That’s one of the takeaways from the recent J.D. Power 2020 study on consumers’ wireless network experiences. The research firm conducts perception studies, asking consumers how they feel about the experiences they had with the companies with which they did business.

If consumers think they’re going to get magically, super-fast speeds with 5G, and what they experience is only slightly better or the same as the best LTE has to offer, they’re going to be disappointed.

“Setting customers’ expectations about the various flavors of 5G is really important,” said Ian Greenblatt, managing director at J.D. Power, who is a FierceWireless contributor. “If you perceive, ‘Oh, it’s 5G, it’s going to be magic, it’s going to be incredible, it’s data at light speed!’ How disappointed are you going to be if you’re expecting the kind of speeds that are available with millimeter wave, which is 1-2 Gbps, that’s crazy fast,” and don’t get that.

Conversely, the reliability and distance that 600 MHz offers are far greater than millimeter wave, but the speeds are slower, he said. “What’s so important is to set those expectations in line with reality because that will harm the perception of network quality,” and there will be an impact if people continue to think they’re going to get a super-fast experience and that’s not what they receive.

Verizon came out on top in the J.D. Power 2020 U.S. Wireless Network Quality Performance Study—Volume 1 study that came out last week. It was fielded from July through December 2019, so the percentage of 5G customers in the study was minimal.

That will change, of course. J.D. Power changes its studies every three or so years to reflect changes in technologies, networks and customer perceptions. “Wireless is in redesign, so this is exciting,” Greenblatt said.

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The most recent network quality study found that residents of urban areas experienced the highest incidence of overall network quality problems. Residents in rural areas experienced the second-highest volume of network quality problems, setting the stage for the regional challenges ahead as carriers roll out 5G.

Verizon, which ranked the highest in all six geographical regions covered in the study, achieved the lowest network quality problems per 100 connections in call, messaging and data quality in each region. 

In the Mid-Atlantic region, T-Mobile was a close second, followed by AT&T, which was just one point behind. Sprint had the highest number of problems reported per 100 mobile device interactions.

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Verizon’s 5G strategy involves deploying millimeter wave—mostly 28 GHz— in urban centers, where it can boast throughput and speeds far better than LTE, but the signals don’t travel very far and coverage is therefore sparser. T-Mobile, on the other hand, is using 600 MHz for 5G, offering better and wider coverage but not the kinds of speeds that mmWave can deliver.

Greenblatt said managing customer expectations for speed and reliability will be critical across the different tiers because the user perception of speed on a high-band frequency vs. a low-band frequency will be very different, driving dissimilar experiences.