As both carriers plow towards faster, more fluid LTE, the barriers between wireless generations blur.
BARCELONA—The “G” inflation wars are back. At press conferences introducing new network technologies here, execs from T-Mobile and Sprint demurred when asked whether they would brand their upgraded “gigabit” 4G LTE networks as “5G” in the future.
“We’re not the marketing department … I think that the gigabit LTE path that we’re on is our path to 5G, [but] I think 5G is more than just gigabit LTE,” Sprint CTO John Saw said.
Saw is at MWC to demonstrate Sprint’s new “Massive MIMO” base station, which has 128 antennas that can each tightly deliver radio beams to specific users’ phones. That greatly improves Sprint’s performance and coverage where it’s installed, and won’t require users to buy new phones. Massive MIMO will start to be installed later this year in areas where Sprint’s network is under demand, Sprint COO Gunther Ottendorfer said.
“It will not be a blanket bombing approach. It will be very driven by where customer demand is,” Ottendorfer said.
“In the 5G space, with fragmentation, there will be a lot of marketing plays,” T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray shrugged. His company is going to gigabit LTE this year in part by borrowing Wi-Fi spectrum, a tactic known as LTE-U.
“We already have equipment in pre-deployment. We’ll have our first handset this spring, second quarter, and it won’t be a niche story, either,” Ray said. (That might mean he’s talking about the Samsung Galaxy S8.)
Don’t necessarily think of gigabit LTE as delivering a gigabit to your phone, by the way, said Cristiano Amon, president of Qualcomm CDMA Technologies. It may end up being more about capacity, and about maintaining unlimited data plans in the face of hungrier and hungrier demands for video.
“For an operator, higher performance modems mean a lower cost per bit or the ability to give you more data in your monthly allowance. If I’m Sprint, I am unlimited, and if I am unlimited, I want to have you on a high performing device,” Amon said.
5G Should Transform Us
Why do we care about what’s called what G? When 4G LTE launched, it offered not just faster speeds but much lower latency than 3G technologies, for a much smoother experience. But T-Mobile branded its HSPA+ 3G tech as “4G,” which then led AT&T to brand its slower HSPA 14.4 as “4G,” confusing consumers as to what to expect from 4G. The whole industry in the US has since then leaned on “LTE” as the moniker for mobile broadband.
Latency may be the bugaboo for fake 5G as well. When I’ve talked to vendors about truly transformative 5G uses, like real-time translation wearables, VR gaming, and augmented reality, they often involve low latencies that current LTE networks can’t sustain.
“Google Glass will finally come of age [with 5G],” Ray said.
But nationwide 5G buildouts will be very difficult, Ray pointed out. Right now, the only spectrum available in the US for 5G “new radio” is extremely high frequency, which doesn’t cover more than a few hundred feet from each cell site. (Sprint says it may do 5G NR on its 2.5GHz spectrum; that’s an area where T-Mobile and Sprint disagree.)
“It will be tougher in suburban and rural areas. The level of investment to deliver a ubiquitous 5G footprint across the US will be enormous,” Ray said.
As AT&T and Verizon will be launching pre-5G fixed wireless services, which they’ll call “5G” this year, well before T-Mobile and Sprint’s 2019-2020 5G launches, the two smaller carriers are probably worried about losing momentum. And fixed wireless just doesn’t interest T-Mobile.
“Does it excite me? Hell no. That’s one use case on a fringe, and replacing how I digest Netflix at home today with 5G wireless, unless it’s going to come at a very material discount to my household, the user experience is going to be very much the same thing,” Ray said. “The piece that’s exciting about 5G is how we’re going to revolutionize the consumer experience.”
Let’s hope his marketing department doesn’t demand the branding before he can deliver.