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T-Mobile calls out other networks’ 5G ‘hype,’ but it’s the worst of all

For the third time in as many months, T-Mobile has launched an offensive on AT&T and Verizon’s 5G plans. According to T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray, Verizon and AT&T’s “5G Hype Machine” has “shifted into overdrive,” and T-Mobile is here to set the record straight.

Let’s be clear about one thing: all the wireless carriers, be it T-Mobile, AT&T, or Verizon, are guilty of spinning some marketing hype about 5G in the past few years. As with any new tech, all the companies want to be first to market, and they’ll say almost anything in a press release to make people think they’re winning. But when it comes to 5G, T-Mobile certainly doesn’t have the right to call out any other carrier’s hype.

In a blog post, T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray took turns attacking both Verizon and AT&T, who have announced 5G targets in the past and have 5G trials and deployments coming up this year or next. But before looking at what Ray says the others are hyping, let’s take a look at what’s actually at stake here.

5G is a new set of standards for what wireless networks will look like for the next decade. Compared to the 4G LTE that we’re all used to right now, 5G should achieve consistently faster speeds, and much lower latency, more akin to a home fiber connection than what you’re used to for mobile broadband right now. The real key to doing that is spectrum: whereas LTE mostly relies on narrow chunks of low-band and mid-band spectrum, 5G will use everything from low-band frequencies that used to be used for TV broadcasts, all the way up to millimeter-wave spectrum that is easily blocked by objects and can only travel a few hundred yards.

The distinction is crucial to understanding what carriers are hyping up, because spectrum is everything when it comes to “real” 5G. Sure, 5G also involves some clever technology that makes transmissions faster and more efficient, but the difference between limited 5G solely existing mobile spectrum, and the LTE-Advanced networks that run on that spectrum right now (and get real-world speeds of hundreds of Mbps) won’t be significant. “True” 5G, the kind of stuff that’s worth getting hyped about, needs to use low-band and high-band spectrum, and lots of it.

Here’s the important thing: No carrier has announced in any kind of detail how or when we will get that kind of 5G. What Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile have all announced are limited real-world applications of 5G technology on one specific type of spectrum, with a vague future promise of “full” 5G coming sometime after.

In the case of Verizon, that means fixed 5G, using millimeter-wave spectrum to deliver gigabit internet to people’s homes. Verizon will initially be using a non-standard version of 5G for its millimeter-wave fixed home internet service, as it started working on trials before the final 3GPP standard was published. Ray picked up on that omission, saying “Never one to be left behind when the BS train is leaving the station, Verizon jumped on board and declared they’d be first – and doubled down on their commitment to launch a pre-standards fixed wireless 5G offering in late 2018. Why does it matter that Verizon doesn’t use 5G industry standards? Well, it won’t scale and won’t work with the vast majority of 5G smartphones that will come to market, which will be standards based.”

Ray’s talking points sound good, but they’re also irrelevant. It doesn’t matter that Verizon’s initial millimeter-wave tests don’t use the official 5G standards, because we’re only talking about a limited trial of fixed wireless here. The fact that it “won’t work with the vast majority of 5G smartphones that will come to market” doesn’t matter, because it would never be intended to work with smartphones in the first place.

Furthermore, Verizon has committed to upgrading its millimeter-wave trials to the official standard when that becomes available, and also to start upgrading its LTE mobile spectrum to the 5G standard in the near future. “We’re going to roll out two versions: the non-standard version launching this year, and then when the standard becomes available, we will launch fixed and mobile 5G when available, starting in 2019,” Verizon Chief Technology Architect Ed Chan told me. For now, Verizon is focused on launching a “minimum viable product” in order to trial 5G technologies in a real-world environment, and “right now, for us that means fixed.”

So let’s look at what T-Mobile has announced in terms of 5G rollouts. In his blog post, Ray reiterated that T-Mobile will launch “nationwide” 5G by 2020, with the first piece of the puzzle being 5G on its 600MHz spectrum in 2019. That’s all we know for now, and based on that, T-Mobile is making just as many baseless claims as Verizon or AT&T. 5G launched on 600MHz spectrum alone will be a step forwards, for sure, but it’s not “real” 5G. Getting the kinds of results that people are expecting from 5G — millisecond latency, gigabit speeds, consistent coverage — needs that mix of spectrum mentioned earlier. Anything other than that — be it Verizon’s millimeter-wave fixed wireless, or T-Mobile’s 600MHz 5G — is technically 5G, but only in name.

So here’s the important part. Neither T-Mobile nor Verizon has a set-in-stone plan for when and where 5G is going to become broadly available. Both companies have a commitment to roll something out starting in 2019, and T-Mobile is promising “nationwide” coverage (without defining really what that means!) by 2020. That’s fine — 5G is still a brand-new technology, and nobody expects networks to have a perfect timeframe for exactly when everything is going to be deployed.

But while both companies are really at the same stage of 5G development and testing, it’s only T-Mobile that’s making the repeated attacks on the competition, saying that it’s the only company with “real” 5G, and trying to discredit every other 5G application that isn’t its own. While I’m all for calling out corporate hyperbole and marketing tricks, T-Mobile should perhaps take a look in the mirror first next time.