5G moves from hype to reality as major US operators go all in

5G moves from hype to reality as major US operators go all in AT&T has joined the likes of T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint in launching the commercial rollout of its 5G network in the US. Starting with 10 cities, the telco is aiming for nationwide coverage in the first half of 2020.

AT&T has become the latest big-name telco to hop on the 5G bandwagon, with the launch of its consumer 5G network in 10 US cities. Users in Birmingham, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Providence, Rochester, San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose will be the first ones to have access. The telco plans to provide nationwide coverage by the first half of 2020.

5G’s need for speed

With AT&T’s 5G launch, all four major operators in the US (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint) now have a commercial 5G service for retail customers. However, something common with all these 5G networks is the fact that the download speeds are nowhere near living up to the hype of 10 Gbps. According to OpenSignal, the maximum real-world 5G speeds in the US are currently around 1.8 Gbps and even lower in countries such as the UK where speeds hover around 600 Mbps. For reference, Google Fiber’s broadband service already offers speeds up to 1 Gbps showing that current 5G networks are only marginally better than existing technologies.

According to Wired, this wide variation in 5G speeds from different carriers stems from the use of different radio frequencies to deliver their services.

The wireless spectrum is divided into three main categories: low-band, mid-band and high-band:
  • Low-band is the most crowded and offers the lowest speeds of around 30 to 250 Mbps. However, a low-band tower can cover hundreds of square miles so it is good for achieving coverage. Low-band 5G networks can essentially be thought of as advanced 4G networks offering only slightly higher speeds.
  • High-band has not been used much yet, but has an enormous amount of bandwidth available for the carriers. In fact, the fastest 5G services use the high-band’s mmWave range. The only problem is that these signals can’t travel very far and require carriers to build more towers to provide their network coverage.
  • Mid-band has less bandwidth than high-band but offers greater flexibility since a tower can cover a larger radius with speeds between 100 and 900 Mbps. Analysts predict that mid-band is likely to become available in all significant ‘metro’ areas of the US with every major carrier next year.

What are the US carriers offering?

Among the US carriers, T-Mobile uses low-band and offers the widest 5G coverage among them. The operator claims that its 5G network is available to 200 million Americans already. Interestingly, T-Mobile is not charging anything extra for 5G, which is available with its standard unlimited plan for $70 per month. Of course, things might change once the planned merger with Sprint moves forward.

Verizon uses high-band mmWave spectrum to power its 5G Ultra Wideband service. The operator has a straightforward approach towards its 5G pricing having revamped its unlimited plans earlier this year with a $10 premium for access to 5G services. Start Unlimited is the cheapest of the 5G plans priced at $70 per month.

AT&T is marketing two 5G varieties: a low-band 5G network that is aimed at retail consumers – reports indicate that it may be faster than 4G LTE networks but it’s nowhere close to the 5G utopia everyone has been raving about; the other is a fast 5G+ network for corporate clients that utilises high-band. AT&T's Unlimited Extra plan is the cheapest way to access its 5G services and costs $75 per month.

Sprint is the only operator in the US to utilise mid-band for its 5G services. The carrier is offering True Mobile 5G through its Unlimited Premium plan priced at $80. Sprint offers premium benefits including Amazon Prime subscriptions with additional benefits such as access to Hulu, Lookout and Tidal as part of the plan. 

US carriers seem to have converged on around $70-$80 per month as the right price point for their 5G services. However, as the market matures, expect these numbers to change.

2020: The defining year for 5G?

While these networks are still in the nascent phase, adoption by leading telcos means that 2020 promises to be the year when 5G truly turns on its commercial switch. Expect lots of 5G services bundled with innovative pricing plans, flexible bundles or exciting value additions next year.

Of course, more devices will need to be made available for consumers to maximise the capabilities of 5G networks. Since the technology is still in its infancy, there are only a handful of 5G devices available in the market so far. Moreover, there is no phone that can support all three bands of 5G. However, the new Snapdragon 865 processor, which contains an integrated 5G modem, is likely to change this and pave the way for low-cost 5G-enabled handsets. Apple is also expected to launch its first generation of 5G iPhones in 2020. It’s safe to say there will be a lot of focus on 5G devices in the upcoming edition of MWC Barcelona and we will report back on this after the show.

Cerillion is proud to be powering Three’s 5G rollout in the UK and helping the telco capitalise on the 5G opportunity fast. Meet us at MWC Barcelona to explore how our pre-integrated Enterprise BSS/OSS platform can work for your business.

(Image Credit: Flickr)