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T-Mobile wants to build the first nationwide 5G network

The company plans to deploy its recently acquired radio airwaves toward a next-generation wireless network.

T-Mobile Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray talks up 5G.

James Martin/CNET

T-Mobile wants to take the lead in 5G -- even if it's not the kind of 5G you're expecting to get.

The nation's third-largest carrier on Tuesday unveiled plans to build out its next-generation wireless network using the radio airwaves it just purchased in a government auction. The focus for its 5G network isn't necessarily speed, but instead broader coverage across the country.

It's a surprising move given those airwaves operate on a lower band, which is great for covering long distances but won't give you tremendous speeds. The move goes against the conventional thinking about 5G, which has spurred excitement because of its ability to give you a seemingly supersonic connection to the network. Instead, T-Mobile is stressing a better signal everywhere and the ability to manage multiple devices beyond the phone.

"There's a certain irony in T-Mobile taking an approach which could see it lead in coverage but lag in speed over time, given that it has until now been known for the opposite -- a fast but far from ubiquitous network," said Jan Dawson, an analyst at Jackdaw Research.

The plan would put T-Mobile in the pole position in the deployment of 5G, with the company able to claim the first nationwide 5G network. With most people signed up for a wireless plan, the carriers are racing to 5G in a bid to get you excited about their services again. In addition, 5G runs on more efficient technology that better allows it to manage your ever-increasing need for video streaming services, mobile gaming and Instagram posts.

T-Mobile's embrace of the existing swath of spectrum that covers the nation could give it a significant advantage over its competitors because it will have access to the radio airwaves as soon as this year. But much of its could just be a matter of bragging rights, since much of the area will lack any speed boost.

"The announcement is setting them up for claiming the largest 5G network in two years, but the applications for it are still nebulous," said Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics.

The company said it also plans to embrace higher-band spectrum covering major cities to offer higher speed in select areas.

"This positions T-Mobile to deliver a 5G network that offers both breadth and depth nationwide," Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray said in a blog post.

Its competitors, however, downplayed whether its spectrum assets would be able to produce a faster 5G experience. "5G networks will be different than the voice networks of the past built using low- and mid-band spectrum," Sprint said in a statement. "They're best-served with high-band spectrum that can move large volumes of data at very fast speeds."

Verizon called out T-Mobile's news as a public relations stunt. "Rather than compete by doing, some prefer to compete with tweets and PR," the company said.

AT&T declined to comment.

Rivals Verizon and AT&T have experimented with 5G using higher-frequency spectrum, which can deliver speeds that are higher than a fiber-optic line, but limited in geography. But the companies don't have a access to huge amounts of this type of spectrum, so the deployments and trials will be limited. At least initially, the two bigger carriers are focusing on fixed 5G services and a replacement for traditional landline-based broadband.

As such, it could take years before they get enough spectrum to make 5G broadly available. In the meantime, T-Mobile's plan may cause some head-scratching over what 5G actually is, and it may disappoint some expecting insanely high speeds.

"It may also cause confusion about what 5G really is, because it will mean fundamentally different things depending on which carrier offers it," Dawson said.

AT&T is already muddying the picture with its "5G Evolution" technology, which isn't actually 5G. Instead, it's an advanced form of 4G that's faster but doesn't have all the characteristics of a next-generation network. The company said it plans to launch mobile 5G by late 2018.

Beyond speed, other benefits from 5G include a high level of responsiveness that can let you remotely pilot a vehicle or perform surgery with virtually no lag. In addition, 5G allows a carrier to connect different devices based on their needs, so farm sensors can periodically ping the network and last for years on a single battery, versus a phone making more intensive use of the network. T-Mobile is looking to emphasize these other benefits.

"We expect to see a whole class of new applications and solutions that will be built for nationwide 5G, and today's applications will just work better and faster," Ray said.

First published May 2, 6:22 a.m. PT.
Update, 10:10 a.m. PT: To include a comment from Sprint and Verizon.

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