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No OnePlus 5G phone for Verizon in the first half of 2019

Despite the OnePlus 6T supporting Verizon's network, don't expect a formal partnership soon.

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The OnePlus 6T is an exclusive for T-Mobile. But future OnePlus phones could still hop to Verizon. 

Juan Garzon/CNET

It seems like a perfect marriage. OnePlus has announced it'll launch its 5G phone in the first half of 2019. Verizon can't stop talking about 5G. But fresh evidence that OnePlus' 5G phone won't land on Verizon's network came to light this week at Qualcomm's annual tech summit held in Maui, HI. 

OnePlus has already cozied up to Verizon with the OnePlus 6T, which has been certified to run on the carrier's network, despite a close partnership deal with rival T-Mobile. Yet OnePlus' CEO, Pete Lau, insists this wasn't a contractual exclusive, adding in an interview with CNET that OnePlus is "focused on maximizing success for ourselves and T-Mobile in this partnership."

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"We're not against having discussions with other carriers in looking toward the future with what's possible," Lau said, through an interpreter. "We're open and welcoming."

But there's a more practical reason for OnePlus to hold off a Verizon 5G partnership right now. Its first 5G phone, which will use Qualcomm's Snapdragon 855 chipset, won't support mmWave (millimeter wave), a band of the highest-speed 5G wireless spectrum that Verizon's 5G network will use. Instead, Lau said that the phone will operate on lower frequency sub-6 spectrum, which has a smaller internal antenna and is easier to deploy.

(What is 5G? Everything you need to know about the next wireless revolution.)

That OnePlus is partnering with UK carrier EE first as an exclusive speaks to the potentially fragmented nature that 5G will bring -- at least initially. Phone makers will have to specifically tune their devices to each network's specific cocktail of spectrum, whether it be super-high frequency mmWave bands or lower frequency spectrum able to hit wider distance and better penetrate walls.

It's also why OnePlus likely isn't building a smartphone for Verizon soon, despite the promise of having a device for the US's largest wireless carrier. While T-Mobile subscribers are seen as more in tune with OnePlus's tech-savvy fanbase, it's still only the third-largest carrier in the nation. An eventual deal with Verizon would be a massive shot in the arm for the Chinese phone maker at a time when other upstart device companies have struggled.

Though Verizon remains open to carrying a OnePlus phone, there are no plans for OnePlus to build a phone specifically for the carrier, according to people familiar with the interactions between the two companies.

OnePlus confirmed that its 5G smartphone will be a distinct line that will launch alongside its main flagship family. It'll be purpose-built to tap into the next-generation cellular network, with the OnePlus 7 to come later.

The OnePlus 6T is the first phone from the company to be supported by a US carrier in T-Mobile. But OnePlus, which lacks the resources of giants like Apple or Samsung, is opting to take things slow despite its position as a fan favorite of Android enthusiasts. That's partly why you saw long lines at T-Mobile stores as OnePlus struggled ot meet the demand.

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The limited release of a 5G phone, meanwhile, underscores the messy nature of the next-generation wireless technology, which promises a massive speed boost but also demands that manufacturers work with carriers to tune their devices specifically to individual networks. The consequence, at least in the near term, is a lot of 5G devices that'll work on one carrier but not another. 

You can expect a lot of device makers to build specific phones for specific carriers, such as LG's first 5G phone with Sprint. Both AT&T and Verizon said they will carry 5G Samsung phones.

At least on paper, a partnership with Verizon and OnePlus seems to make sense. 5G is a huge priority for both companies, and OnePlus went through the effort of making sure its OnePlus 6T worked on Verizon's network, seen as a precursor for a firmer relationship. But OnePlus hasn't talked about making a phone that would be sold in Verizon stores, which would require a much tougher certification process.

And since OnePlus would have to have been working with Verizon for a while to build a 5G phone, that isn't in the cards either. 

Verizon has much of its 2019 phone lineup set in stone already, but it's open to a OnePlus relationship down the line, according to a person familiar with the carrier's thinking. 

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Qualcomm's 5G reference device shows that 5G phones won't look much different on the outside.

Roger Cheng/CNET

No talks about a specific deal have occurred, however. 

For now, OnePlus is focusing on the deal with T-Mobile, which analysts note makes for a better demographic fit since the carrier tends to attract younger, more tech-savvy consumers. 

A spokeswoman for T-Mobile declined to comment on the future of its relationship with OnePlus, saying only that it would focus on selling the OnePlus 6T. 

A spokesman for Verizon declined to comment.

CNET's Shara Tibken contributed to this report.

The story originally ran at 5 a.m. PT on Nov. 12.

Update, 5:04 a.m. PT on Dec. 6: To include additional executive comments and background.

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With contribution from Roger Cheng.