Telecom Firms' 5G Rollout on Track Despite COVID-19 Hiccups

Supriyo Bose

“Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” – Colin Powell, former U.S. National Security Adviser.

True to this visionary statement, U.S. telecom firms seem to have never lost hope and remained confident about continuing their 5G deployment process across the country despite disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. However, they acknowledged that the momentum is likely to be hampered in some cities due to longer approval time for infrastructure setups, like small cells, as well as other necessary permits and changes. In addition, remote working procedures due to social-distancing measures and temporary closures of permitting offices are likely to somewhat delay the process.

The seeds of optimism appear to have borne fruit as the virus outbreak highlighted the need for high-speed, high-bandwidth and low-latency connections — the hallmarks of the 5G network — for digital sustainability. Despite certain impediments, telecom firms have relentlessly provided the vital lifeline to countless humans as virtual communication replaced in-person exchanges with social distancing and the work-from-home option in vogue. The firms have worked in unison to effectively handle the upsurge in data traffic, prompting even the top administration to remain effusive about their contribution in the hour of crisis.

In this backdrop, let us have a brief rundown about where the three leading U.S. telecom carriers stand at the moment regarding 5G deployment across the country.

AT&T Inc. T: As the first carrier in the industry, AT&T has unveiled its 5G policy framework that will hinge on three pillars — mobile 5G, fixed wireless and edge computing. In order to have a seamless transition among Wi-Fi, LTE and 5G services, the company intends to deploy a standards-based nationwide mobile 5G network in 2020. Its 5G service entails the utilization of millimeter wave spectrum for deployment in dense pockets while in suburban and rural areas, it intends to deploy 5G on mid- and low-band spectrum holdings. AT&T believes that as the 5G ecosystem evolves, customers can experience significant enhancements in coverage, speeds and devices.

By the end of April, AT&T made the 5G network available in 190 markets across the United States, serving more than 120 billion people. This primarily comprises the low-band 850MHz network in suburban and rural areas. The company also offers 5G+ services in 35 cities across its mmWave network, offering super-fast speeds in dense pockets. In order to have a seamless transition among Wi-Fi, LTE and 5G services, AT&T intends to deploy a standards-based nationwide mobile 5G network in 2020. Notably, the company aims to roll out dynamic spectrum sharing in the second half of 2020 that will enable the deployment of both 4G and 5G in the same band and proactively allocate spectrum resources between them, based on user demand. It believes that as the 5G ecosystem evolves, customers can experience significant enhancements in coverage, speeds and devices.

Verizon Communications Inc. VZ: San Diego has recently become the 35th city in the country where Verizon has introduced its 5G Ultra Wideband mobility service. The 5G Ultra Wideband network uses a millimeter-wave spectrum and is designed to provide customers significantly faster download speed and greater bandwidth compared with 4G. It hinges on three fundamental drivers to deliver the full potential of the 5G technology. These include massive spectrum holdings, particularly in the millimeter wave bands for faster data transfer, end-to-end deep fiber resources and the ability to deploy large numbers of small cells.

The company aims to retain its leading position in promulgating 5G mobile networks nationwide by using virtualized machines, advanced levels of operational automation and adaptability. Verizon has created a virtual lab to accelerate 5G innovation and sow the seeds of the future at a time, when visiting a physical lab is mired with various roadblocks due to social distancing measures. As the company continues to expand mobile and home coverage across the country, it intends to work with leading technology partners to advance the 5G ecosystem and bring unparalleled experiences to customers. 

T-Mobile US Inc. TMUS: Reinforcing the inherent strength of its resilient business model, T-Mobile has achieved a historic milestone by offering 5G services across all 50 states in the country. The company recently formed a strategic collaboration with General Communication Inc., a telecommunications firm operating in Alaska, to provide 5G network connectivity in Anchorage — the largest city in the state. With this, T-Mobile reportedly became the only wireless carrier to offer 5G services throughout the country either on its own or through partner coverage.

With the merger and the subsequent integration with Sprint assets, T-Mobile has redefined itself as a wireless giant with a huge subscriber base that is comparable with rivals AT&T and Verizon. The merger has enabled T-Mobile and Sprint to join their high- and low-band spectrum for a faster nationwide 5G rollout, undeniably disrupting the competitive landscape of the U.S. telecom market. T-Mobile’s network will likely have 14 times more capacity in the next six years than on a standalone basis, which will enable it to leapfrog the competition in network capability and experience. Its customers will have access to average 5G speed, which will be up to eight times faster than current LTE in a few years and 15 times faster over the next six years. Within six years, the new T-Mobile is expected to provide 5G to 99% of the U.S. population and average 5G speeds above 100 Mbps to 90% of the population. T-Mobile’s business plan is built on covering 90% of rural Americans with average 5G speeds of 50 Mbps, up to two times faster than broadband.

Moving Forward

Over the years, network operators have been increasingly moving toward ‘software defined networks’, which make it possible to operate the network infrastructure remotely through software rather than any physical means. The radical improvements in network technology and automation have helped the telecom carriers to weather the coronavirus-induced turmoil, thereby preventing the virus outbreak from derailing the 5G deployment plans.

Thus, 2020 – the year of 5G – appears to be on its course to hit the proverbial Bull’s Eye.

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