In a season of 5G firsts, T-Mobile and Nokia announce a big one

T-Mobile CEO John Legere says his company is building a "real nationwide mobile 5G network." (T-Mobile)

Nokia and T-Mobile say they have reached a "major milestone in delivering true mobile 5G," but does that mean T-Mobile will be first to market with this technology? Nokia and its chief competitor, Ericsson, are both working with multiple operators in the race to 5G, but T-Mobile is the carrier that got to claim a "first" with bidirectional standards-compliant 5G.

T-Mobile and Nokia said they completed the nation’s first bidirectional over-the-air 5G data session on a 3GPP-compliant 5G New Radio (NR) system. The session was completed in T-Mobile’s lab in Bellevue, Washington, using a device that simulates end user equipment and Nokia’s 3GPP-compliant 5G equipment. Although T-Mobile has talked often about its plans to use its recently acquired 600 MHz spectrum for 5G, its recent work with Nokia was in the 28 GHz spectrum band. T-Mobile has said that it will use both millimeter wave spectrum (such as 28 GHz) and 600 MHz spectrum for 5G.

Any 5G user device that communicates with a tower or small cell will presumably need to use bidirectional transmission, so the announcement made by Nokia and T-Mobile is very significant. But it doesn't necessarily mean T-Mobile will be the first carrier to launch bidirectional 5G commercially.

AT&T has said it will be first to market with mobile 5G. It has plans to launch commercially this year in 12 cities but says users will need an extra piece of equipment to connect to the 5G network. AT&T calls this device a puck and plans to make it available to customers in the launch cities. This device would presumably need to transmit to and from the cell site, but it could use different bands for the uplink and downlink. So being first to announce bidirectional standards-compliant 5G may or may not mean being first to launch that technology commercially.

"There are always ways to caveat being first," said Peter Jarich, head of GSMA intelligence. "It reminds me of the Tour de France sponsor who claimed to be the #1 seller of partially frozen lunch meals in France. That’s a pretty narrow classification and I think you could say the same of many 5G firsts."

Narrow though it may be, T-Mobile and Nokia's achievement does appear to be a very important milestone in the race to 5G. 

“This test is a big step forward in building REAL 5G that will work on actual smartphones,” said T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray in a press release. “We’re excited to continue our work with Nokia to move the future of wireless forward and bring 5G to customers!” T-Mobile does not plan to launch 5G until 2019 but says that it will be true mobile 5G. 

"T-Mobile is well on its way to 5G commercial deployment," said Marc Rouanne, president of mobile networks at Nokia. 

The Nokia equipment used for the T-Mobile 5G data transmission included the AirScale baseband and radio, AirFrame server, and AirScale Cloud RAN running 5G NR 3GPP-compliant software. The two companies said the same solution has been fully proven in T-Mobile’s environment through ongoing lab and field trials.