Mention the words USA and mobile, and 5G inevitably springs to mind. But of course, even as the USA fights China and Korea to be the ‘world’s leading 5G nation’, and the US MNOs battle to be first in that race, most of the attention is still on LTE. In particular, the big four operators need to fend off challenges from smaller players and the cablecos, as well as one another – and the focus of that is increasingly not primarily on conventional mobile services.
Instead, it is on using new sources of spectrum, whether 4G or 5G, to add fixed wireless to the mobile services in order to deliver a quad play service. This will help mobile-only players like T-Mobile USA penetrate the home and secure a bigger share of total household comms spending, and it will support AT&T and Verizon in enlarging their home broadband territories and fighting off cablecos.
And in the second phase, the operators will need to optimize and extend their LTE and 5G networks to gain market share through new users, mainly in the enterprise and industrial space. From enabling private cellular networks, to network-as-a- service, to large-scale IoT-optimized connectivity, to full 5G slicing – it will be essential to the operators’ growth during the 2020s to move well beyond the consumer, before others get their first.
New sources of spectrum are helping the MNOs – especially the plentiful millimeter wave airwaves, which have supported Verizon’s and AT&T’s early-stage 5G roll-outs and are now being auctioned. But some will also open doors to challengers in both the growth areas, home multiplay and industrial. Some of the 24 GHz spectrum currently being auctioned – or other bands in future – may go to cable operators or Dish as well as the big four.
And then there is the rising use of shared spectrum in the USA. The three-tiered CBRS band is being closely watched round the world and is an area where the FCC can genuinely claim to have asserted leadership. The general access (GAA) layer is likely to be used initially for LTE, and judging by FCC filings and recent trials, it will be targeted by cable operators like Comcast and Charter (the latter already proclaiming CBRS LTE plus WiFi to be ‘5G’); as well as industrial users like GE and cloud giants like Google and AWS.
Then there is the continuing use of WiFi to deliver services that increasingly look similar to those of 4G and 5G, and that will intensify with the advent of WiFi 6, based on the 802.11ax standards. This adds some 5G-like capabilities including support for high density of devices, lower latency and muti-gigabit speeds.