What the Galaxy S9 says about U.S. operators’ network strategies

Verizon is among the U.S. carriers looking to sell the new Samsung Galaxy S9. (Image: Verizon)

BARCELONA, Spain—Samsung finally took the wraps off its new flagship Android gadget, the Galaxy S9, and all of the nation’s top wireless carriers immediately announced plans to sell the device—at varying price points—as soon as possible.

While much of the attention on Samsung’s latest device focuses on its features and functions—display, camera, speakers and that kind of thing—just as important to the nation’s network operators is what kind of network technology is in the S9. That’s because Samsung often leads the way in terms of implementing new wireless network technology—the company’s devices are often among the first to include new wireless network technologies and spectrum bands that operators are working on deploying. Moreover, Samsung often builds iterations of its gadgets specific to individual operators in order to accommodate their specific technologies and spectrum bands.

Thus, it’s worth looking more closely at the wireless network technologies built into the Galaxy S9 in order to see what kinds of wireless network technologies the nation’s carriers are focusing on.

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And, surprisingly, there aren’t too many details yet about exactly what’s inside the S9 headed to the United States. All of the nation’s wireless operators declined to comment beyond their press releases announcing the gadget.

On its specification website, Samsung notes only that its new Galaxy S9 and S9+ sport “Enhanced 4x4 MIMO/CA, LAA, and LTE Cat.18.” The devices also feature high-end Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and location capabilities (GPS, Galileo, Glonass, BeiDou). However, U.S. users may get a selection of those specs since Samsung often builds stock-keeping units specific to a particular region’s characteristics. “May differ by country and carrier,” Samsung advises on its specification page.

Conspicuous in its absence though was any mention of the 3.5 GHz CBRS band for the United States.

In announcing their plans to sell the S9, each of the nation’s top wireless carriers sought to highlight slightly different network elements.

T-Mobile, for its part, noted its version of the S9 and S9+ would support its growing 600 MHz wireless network – noteworthy since only a handful of T-Mobile’s devices currently support that spectrum band. Moreover, T-Mobile is now the only major operator in the United States that’s building out a 600 MHz network. The inclusion of 600 MHz support in the Samsung Galaxy S9 reflects both the importance of the band to T-Mobile as well as Samsung’s continued work to meet the requirements of each of its carrier partners.

Further, T-Mobile in a release said that Samsung’s S9 and S9+ “have state-of-the-art hardware that can tap into advanced LTE technologies on the T-Mobile network — including the trifecta of 4x4 MIMO, carrier aggregation and 256 QAM, as well as License Assisted Access (LAA). The Un-carrier has now deployed the trifecta of LTE-Advanced technologies in nearly 5,000 cities and towns across the country, and since the Galaxy S9 and S9+ rock the latest Snapdragon 845 chipset from Qualcomm, they can hit a blistering 1.2 Gbps in laboratory tests, a 20% increase in peak theoretical speed over the Galaxy S8.”

Sprint, in its own release, touted the inclusion of its HPUE network technology in the S9. The technology is designed to improve the performance of devices accessing Sprint’s 2.5 GHz spectrum by improving the gadgets’ range using the band – Sprint executives have said that HPUE essentially ensures that Sprint’s 2.5 GHz spectrum performs similarly to its lower-band spectrum. Samsung is one of a growing number of Sprint handset suppliers supporting HPUE—the carrier has said that it now sells roughly a dozen HPUE-capable phones.

And Sprint’s 2.5 GHz is critical to Sprint’s long-term network strategy—the carrier is working to add 2.5 GHz antennas to virtually all of the operator’s cell towers, as only about half support the spectrum today. “With an average of 204 MHz of spectrum and more than 160 MHz of 2.5 GHz spectrum in the top 100 U.S. markets, Sprint has more mobile broad band spectrum than any other carrier across the nation, allowing Sprint to keep adding the capacity and speed needed to serve customers’ increasing demand for unlimited data,” Sprint boasted in its S9 release.

Meantime, AT&T’s Galaxy S9 and S9+ announcement also offered a look at where the operator is focusing its network efforts. “First responders subscribing to FirstNet will be able to add the Galaxy S9/S9+ to the list of tools they can use to safely and effectively respond to emergencies,” the operator wrote in its release. “The Galaxy S9/S9+ will let first responders tap into the full FirstNet experience, delivering a reliable, highly secure and always-on connection to the critical information they need. The Galaxy S9/S9+ is also the first Samsung device with built-in Band 14 access, the new frequency band that will be built out for FirstNet.”

AT&T last year won a contract with FirstNet to build a nationwide network for public-safety users using FirstNet’s 20 MHz of nationwide 700 MHz spectrum. The operator is hoping that the effort will allow it to obtain additional market share among police, firefighters and other first responders—and AT&T is now touting the S9 and S9+ as a device that can be used by first responders on a network specifically dedicated to them.

Finally, Verizon offered little in the way of network-specific details in its S9 announcement other than to say that “the best streaming network meets a revolutionary Infinity Display.” A Verizon spokesman declined to provide any further details on its S9 network specifications and technologies, noting that the carrier may comment on the topic further in March, when it is scheduled to begin selling the gadget along with the rest of the nation’s operators.

Overall the Samsung Galaxy S9 garnered solid reviews from device analysts. “The Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus offer incremental improvements over their immediate predecessors, notably the camera, which received particular attention during the launch. This is a potentially tough sell for the Korean smartphone maker, but the real goal of the new models is making an already good product even better as Samsung takes the fight to Apple,” wrote the analysts from CCS Insight in a wrap-up of handset news here from the Mobile World Congress trade show.

Other phones released here at the MWC show include those from Sony, Nokia smartphone vendor HMD, Alcatel and others.