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Verizon and T-Mobile agree much of the US won’t see the fast version of 5G

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Rural areas may not get millimeter wave

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5G is here, but not all 5G is equal — there’s the blazing-fast-but-barely-there millimeter wave 5G which has trouble covering wide areas and penetrating buildings, and the “sub-6GHz” frequency flavor of 5G that can be deployed more easily using existing spectrum.

And now, Verizon and T-Mobile are publicly admitting something that anyone could have predicted: good luck getting the fastest version of 5G unless you live in an urban metropolitan area.

“We all need to remind ourselves this is not a coverage spectrum,” Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg told analysts on the company’s Q1 2019 earnings call on Tuesday — just one day after T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray decried Verizon’s 5G rollout as one that would “never reach rural America.”

“Millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum has great potential in terms of speed and capacity, but it doesn’t travel far from the cell site and doesn’t penetrate materials at all. It will never materially scale beyond small pockets of 5G hotspots in dense urban environments,” Ray wrote. That’s probably one of the reasons why we were barely able to find Verizon’s 5G network on the day it launched in Chicago.

mmWave utilizes new spectrum, while sub-6GHz uses the same spectrum as existing 4G networks.
Image: Qualcomm

Mind you, T-Mobile has some ulterior motives for blasting Verizon here. First, the carrier delayed its 5G launch until the second half of 2019, using the (actually pretty convincing in hindsight!) excuse that it’s too early to launch a 5G network when there aren’t any compatible phones. Second, T-Mobile’s still trying to convince US regulators that it needs to be able to merge with Sprint in order to meaningfully compete on 5G, particularly now that the deal is reportedly unlikely to be approved as proposed.

And Verizon had already suggested to The Verge that it might not spend the money to bring the fastest 5G to everyone: “Our ambition is large... that doesn’t mean we’re going to blanket every corner of the country with millimeter wave,” Verizon chief network officer Nikki Palmer told me in December, when I wrote about how AT&T and Verizon were planning to wow with speed before attempting to going broader with “sub-6” 5G.

“We will do it as far as the economics are sustainable, of course,” Vestberg said yesterday.

Verizon says it now has several mmWave phones coming, including the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G; a rumored, teased, but previously unconfirmed 5G-enabled Galaxy Note; and the LG V50 ThinQ.