T-Mobile will deploy blazing 5G this year, but you can't use it

Cities like LA and New York will be the first to get the next-gen network, but T-Mobile will put off a commercial launch until 2019 when 5G phones are ready.

T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray, speaking at Mobile World Congress, says the carrier will deploy mobile 5G in 30 cities this year. 
Roger Cheng/CNET

The race to turn 5G from hype into reality has hit another gear.

T-Mobile will deploy mobile 5G to 30 cities this year, including New York and Los Angeles, Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray said Tuesday at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The company still plans to launch the service next year and provide nationwide coverage by 2020.

The move is just the latest bit of jockeying as US carriers attempt to one-up their rivals on the claim of getting to 5G first. Although T-Mobile said it's deploying the next-generation technology this year, consumers won't see any real benefits until 2019 when the first 5G-capable smartphones hit the market.

Boasting about 5G has become the new favorite pastime for carriers, which are eager to drive buzz and attention to their networks in a continuing bid to win your business. Verizon was the first to stoke the 5G hype back in 2015 by announcing its intention to test the technology. Verizon also insists it will be the first to offer 5G as a replacement for home internet service and plans to deploy that tech in the second half of 2018.

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 Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure has promised to build the first nationwide 5G network by early 2019. It'll take a big step in that direction this year when it rolls out 5G capabilities to Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles and Washington, DC, though Sprint customers won't be able to access 5G until the service launches next year.

AT&T has said it will have mobile 5G available in a dozen markets, including Atlanta and Dallas, later this year.

Ray, however, downplayed the current competition.

"I don't want to win the 2018 race," Ray said during his speech. "It's a meaningless race."

On Tuesday, T-Mobile named four of the 30 cities getting 5G. Besides New York and LA, Las Vegas and Dallas, where AT&T is based, are on the list.

"When we built our LTE network, we had the unlimited future in mind, and we take that same approach here," Ray said. "Every dollar we invest in our network is a 5G dollar."

The company said it is already deploying equipment that is 5G-ready, meaning it will be able to move to the next-generation technology with software upgrades. The carrier is planning to use the 600 megahertz spectrum it acquired from a government auction last year to partly power 5G. Ray said in an interview that T-Mobile will also use so-called millimeter wave spectrum, which runs at a higher frequency and is key to enabling those high speeds, in conjunction with the 600MHz spectrum.

Ray said T-Mobile acquired the higher frequency airwaves from its acquisition of MetroPCS.

While the comments come just weeks after Claure made his promise, Ray said Tuesday's announcement isn't a response to Sprint.

Verizon is expected to launch commercial service in at least one market -- Sacramento -- later this year, while AT&T has promised that its network will run on "pucks," or wireless hotspots, by the end of 2018. 

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