The carrier battle over 5G will only escalate in 2021

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. 

Read more: 5G will start to live up to its hype in 2021 — for real this time

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.  

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