The four US MNOs battle for the 5G standards spotlight

No sooner had the first 3GPP 5G specifications been completed (see separate item) than all four major US MNOs were clamoring to announce support and describe their latest trials.

Sprint, which has not so far joined the race to be first to 5G in the US – arguing that it has plenty of 4G spectrum and capacity still to use – nonetheless crowed that had succeeded in getting its primary band, 2.5 GHz, into the 5G specs. That means its greatest competitive asset, more than 100 MHz of this spectrum per market, can be used for either wireless generation according to business case.

Meanwhile, AT&T and Verizon reiterated plans to trial and deploy fixed wireless access (FWA) using 5G in millimeter wave bands, namely 28 GHz and 39 GHz. Verizon is mainly focused on fixed applications alone in the first phase, and will use its own inhouse ‘5G’ technology first, converting to full standards later. By contrast, AT&T will be 5G NR-compliant from day one, and is talking more aggressively about supporting mobile services in mmWave at an early date (though with very few details about how it will achieve this daunting feat).

T-Mobile USA has been dismissive of the furore over mmWave and is mainly touting 5G plans at the other end of the spectrum, in the 600 MHz airwaves it acquired in last year’s broadcaster incentive auction. In fact, it is conducting mmWave tests in 28 GHz with Nokia, in Bellevue, Washington, but its first priority is clearly to achieve full mobility and cost-effective coverage by harnessing low band spectrum.

CEO John Legere pledged over the holiday season that T-Mobile would “leapfrog” rivals in deploying mobile 5G using the 600 MHz assets, from 2020, and the operator expects to layer in 28 GHz high capacity sites after that where high data rates or device density is required.

“Our epic low-band spectrum haul blankets the country from coast to coast and ensures we can do two VERY big things,” wrote Legere in a blog post. “First, though our coverage ALREADY goes toe-to-toe with Verizon and has all the carriers scared to death. We’ll continue to grow and strengthen our LTE coverage today, and second, we announced we’d use part of that spectrum to build nationwide 5G. While Dumb and Dumber focus on 5G hotspots that won’t work when you leave your home, we will be the only ones on the fast track toward a real, mobile nationwide 5G network in 2020 – and have already started deploying 5G-ready equipment. We’re leapfrogging the Duopoly like they’re standing still.”

More calmly, TMO’s CTO, Neville Ray, said: “We’re laser focused on building a nationwide 5G network for mobility, one that uses multiple spectrum bands, and launching field trials for mmWave spectrum is an important step forward.”

Verizon is gearing up to launch commercial fixed 5G in up to five markets in the second half of this year, starting with Sacramento, California, where it is using equipment from Samsung and Ericsson to support its homegrown 5GTF pre-standard specification. Samsung will provide base stations and virtualized RAN elements as well as home routers, and has also commercial ASIC-based 5G modems and mmWave 28 GHz RFICs inhouse.

And AT&T has started on its largest fixed 5G trial in Waco, Texas, at The Silos shopping and entertainment complex. The 5G trial service will be delivered in mmWave spectrum and distributed around the venue via WiFi access points, supporting visitors and employees as well as retailers’ back office and point of sale activities.

The operator will be testing 5G mmWave radio and antenna prototypes and using its NFV platform, Flexware, as the router.

However, AT&T is also saying that it will launch mobile 5G services in 12 markets in late 2018, without giving details of the spectrum, or what devices would be available. It is possible it will harness one of its underused midband airwaves, such as AWS-3 or WCS, though with LTE in limited use, it would lack the 100 MHz needed for true 5G performance (an issue TMO will also face in 600 MHz).