For the wireless industry, 2020 was notable not just because of the coronavirus pandemic, but because it marked the true beginning of the 5G era. While the actual networks still have a long way to go to fully live up to the hype, they did usher in at least one welcome change: a renewed competition between wireless carriers.
At the beginning of the year, Verizon was well established as the largest carrier in America, AT&T was in second place and T-Mobile was pushing hard to get its merger with Sprint approved. On the network front, T-Mobile was leading with a nationwide low-band 5G network that didn't offer much compared to 4G LTE, Verizon was focused on a millimeter-wave rollout that offered much faster speeds but only worked on certain city blocks, and AT&T was dabbling with both.
As we march to the end of the year, the industry has flipped. Verizon is still the biggest carrier, but its nationwide 5G network is still smaller than T-Mobile's, which has taken the pole position in the US 5G race. Thanks to the approval of its Sprint merger in April, T-Mobile not only surpassed AT&T as the second-largest carrier, but it is also well underway with the rollout of a faster midband 5G network which offers significantly faster speeds than low-band 5G with much better coverage than the higher-frequency millimeter wave. AT&T, meanwhile, has fallen to third and has become one of the most aggressive carriers when it comes to promotions, particularly with iPhone 12 deals that offer heavy discounts to both new and existing customers.
The radical shift underscores the topsy-turvy nature of the wireless world, which also had to deal with another curveball from the coronavirus and a global pandemic that kept people from being on the go and actually using those upgraded networks. That competitive nature should continue on to 2021, when the battle over dominance in 5G and consumers is expected to intensify.
A new battle of networks
Over the last decade, Verizon dominated 4G LTE from the get-go, when it was the first major carrier to roll out the network technology. But the rise of 5G has Big Red trailing T-Mobile.
Thanks to its Sprint merger, T-Mobile has opened a wide lead. It has the largest low-band 5G network, covering 270 million people today, and its faster midband network -- something that Verizon can't catch up to right away -- is expected to reach 100 million people by the end of this year.
T-Mobile's president of technology, Neville Ray, said he is targeting a nationwide midband network covering 200 million people by the end of 2021, offering much higher speeds compared to the low-band 5G now used for nationwide coverage. Ray expects average speeds over the midband network to be between 300 to 400Mbps, with peak speeds "north of 1Gbps."
T-Mobile will continue to expand its low-band and midband network coverage as well as its millimeter-wave offering, though the latter may not arrive in a real way until the second half of next year. T-Mobile currently has millimeter-wave 5G in parts of just seven cities.
"For us, it's all about delivering the best 5G mobility experience that anybody's going to see, you know, in 2021 and beyond," Ray says. "We've made a tremendous start on that in 2020."
T-Mobile also was the first of the major US carriers to launch a standalone 5G network that isn't tied to any existing 4G LTE technology. These networks offer better coverage and lower latency. AT&T is starting its deployment this year, and Verizon expects to launch its own standalone 5G network in 2021.
The lower latency should allow for improvements in applications such as augmented reality and gaming, Frank Boulben, Verizon's senior vice president of marketing and products, tells CNET. "Those are the types of applications that will be largely improved with a standalone 5G core versus a 4G core."
In the interim, Verizon announced on Thursday that it had exceeded its goal of 60 millimeter-wave cities in 2020 (officially hitting 61) and has expanded its low-band 5G network to cover 230 million people.
It plans to continue to expand both its low-band footprint and its millimeter-wave offering next year, though Kyle Malady, Verizon's chief technology officer, says not to expect another wave of 60 new millimeter-wave cities in 2021. "You won't see 60," he says, "but you'll see just growth in the cities that we've already deployed."
Millimeter-wave has been Verizon's 5G focus, and the company is keenly aware of its limitations -- particularly when it comes to working indoors. Malady says that the company is working with a variety of partners to help bring the signal indoors and has been working with retailers, including Apple Stores, and factories to test how the technology performs inside.
Improvements are also coming for its low-band performance, with Malady already planning some "optimizations" in the first quarter of 2021.
For AT&T, the focus for 2021 will not be on speed but on improving its latency, or the responsiveness of its network, including scaling out the standalone 5G network offering.
"If I look at our typical speed across the network, we're actually pretty pleased," Gordon Mansfield, AT&T vice president for converged access & device technology, tells CNET. "The next thing is starting to improve that latency for that immersive experience."
The company is targeting a latency of under 20 milliseconds for "the majority of the population" and then continuing to "further improve it." It offers a low-band 5G network that covers 225 million people and has a millimeter-wave offering (what it calls 5G Plus) available in parts of 36 cities.
A messy current state
Given the existing state of 5G, the improvements can't come soon enough.
When asked to ascribe letter grades to the carriers for the 2020 performances, Techsponential analyst Avi Greengart says they are "all over the place."
"In terms of marketing, Verizon gets an A," he says. "They've convinced people they have something that they don't, which is a great 5G network in places where it's usable."
Like rival low-band networks from T-Mobile and AT&T, Verizon's nationwide low-band 5G network isn't radically different from 4G LTE connections, something CNET tested in the New York area this past month. "Even though, in some cases, AT&T and Verizon have very fast 4G networks, you're not going to see an improvement on that with 5G," says Greengart, until both carriers get more wireless airwaves known as spectrum.
A Federal Communications Commission auction for more midband spectrum, known as the C-Band, is now underway, and Verizon and AT&T are both expected to be active bidders. Craig Moffett, an analyst at MoffettNathanson, wrote in a Dec. 8 research note that Verizon is "widely expected to be the most aggressive player," adding that his firm expects the telecom giant to spend "$16.25 billion on C-Band in 2021."
But getting that spectrum and putting it to use will take time. "Given the expected auction timeline and spectrum clearing deadlines," Moffett writes, "Verizon and other buyers will not be able to access even the first tranche of C-Band spectrum for 12-18 months after the auction is completed."
Good coverage from this spectrum is "two or three years out," Greengart says.
Taking the fight to the home (broadband)
The expansion of 5G should also open up a new front in the wireless carrier battles: home broadband. T-Mobile and Verizon have been very open about plans to expand into home internet service, and each has already begun dabbling in the space.
T-Mobile offers a 4G LTE-based home internet product, while Verizon offers both a 4G LTE based product and, in, a 5G Home service that connects to that faster network.
Verizon's 5G Home service offers average download speeds of 300 Mbps for either $50 or $70 per month (depending on if you have the right Verizon wireless plan), and Malady says to expect Verizon to continue to expand where it offers 5G Home to more cities in 2021. He adds that it is possible the 4G LTE home broadband will expand next year as it continues to add more capacity to its network. In addition to the C-Band auction, Verizon spent $1.9 billion acquiring some additional midband spectrum this summer, which it has already begun putting to use.
T-Mobile will have a 5G home broadband device that Ray says will be "plug and play" and arrive in the first quarter of 2021. The carrier charges $50 for its existing 4G LTE product, though Ray would not disclose how much the 5G offering would cost. The launch of the 5G home internet product will also not be nationwide, instead, T-Mobile will be focusing on areas that don't have strong home internet options.
"There's a lot of places where people's access to broadband is pretty, pretty goddamn awful today," Ray says. "And I wish we could fix all of that overnight but we will make a start on that as a company, you know, in 2021, and that's the benefit that's coming with 5G and the capacity that we can build and we deliver out in the marketplace."
Although AT&T has largely stayed away from offering a home internet service over its cellular network, preferring to instead focus on its wired internet.
"We actually have very good fiber penetration and if fiber to the home is available, it is a superior performance advantage than anything we can do wirelessly," Mansfield says. The company plans more fiber buildouts in 2021.
In a home internet market that for many has long struggled to offer competition, 2021 should be a doozy. In addition to the wireless carriers, new entrants include SpaceX, Elon Musk's space company, which has been launching low-Earth orbit satellites into space throughout 2020 with the goal of eventually providing home internet access.
The company reportedly plans to expand its "Better than Nothing" beta service, which offers broadband internet for $99 per month (plus a $499 upfront cost for a terminal), to more people in 2021. Other companies are looking at LEOs for providing home internet, including Amazon with its Project Kuiper program.
The Dish wildcard
Lurking in the background of all of this is Dish. The satellite TV provider has spent years, and billions of dollars, accumulating valuable wireless spectrum with the promise that it would eventually turn on a mobile network.
As part of the T-Mobile-Sprint merger, Dish acquired Sprint's prepaid wireless brand, Boost Mobile, and gained the ability to use T-Mobile's network for seven years while it built out its own network. While the company has made announcements about vendors and the progress it is making developing the pieces needed for a 5G network, it has yet to turn on the service.
In court last year as part of the hearings to get the T-Mobile-Sprint merger approved, Dish co-founder Charlie Ergen talked about how his company's pricing would be lower than where the market was and said his company would have a 5G network operational in one city by the end of 2020. While Boost Mobile has experimented with cheaper rate plans, a publicly accessible Dish 5G city has yet to happen.
Dish is testing a 5G network in Cheyenne, Wyoming, that is taking advantage of a new technology known as O-RAN, which will make up the core of its future wireless network, according to a person familiar with the company's thinking. The person added that the radios it needs should arrive in the second half of 2021 which is when the company will go live with its first 5G cities. It is unclear where these cities are located or how many Dish will launch in 2021.
When asked in court if the company can be trusted to build out a 5G network, Ergen cited potential fines and lost spectrum, saying that "it'd be financial suicide" if the company failed to meet the guidelines and that Dish is "not suicidal."
Yet industry watchers remain skeptical of Dish's motives.
"I believe they are going to start building something in a few in a handful of locations so that they can say that they're doing something," said Greengart. But, he cautions, "they are using brand new technology which introduces its own delays and they don't necessarily have the capital to do a full rollout."
"I am not expecting any meaningful coverage for a 5G Dish network in 2021," he continues. "Maybe they'll build it in one city. Maybe."