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Breakdown Of Carrier 5G Networks, And How MVNOs Should Strategize

The 4G To 5G Carrier Network Evolution
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At the end of my last article, I said that I would provide a comprehensive overview of where the three top carriers are with their 5G buildout, based on interviews with industry experts. While the amount of coverage is growing every day, the message to wireless subscribers is still a confusing one; who’s network is better, faster, covers more people? We’ll try to present the facts on where T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon are, what technology that they are using and attempt to cut through the clutter.

I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with colleague Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies at Light Reading. Mike started off with an eye-opening quote, “not all 5G networks are the same.

Yes, we know that but do consumers?

Do MVNO’s know this?

Do YOU know this?

As we dug deeper, Mike laid out in layman’s terms how the Big Three are approaching their 5G network buildouts. He referred to the Three Phases of 5G that he published in March of 2021:

Phase 0

AT&T was the first carrier to deliver "5G" to a large number of consumers. The only problem is that the operator did so using its 4G network.

AT&T introduced its "5G Evolution" brand in 2017 with the argument that advanced 4G LTE technologies helped evolve its 4G service into something like 5G.

Then, at the end of 2018, AT&T began replacing the 4G LTE icon on its phones with the "5Ge" icon. The result? Large numbers of AT&T's customers thought the carrier had magically updated their phones to 5G without charging them one extra cent. On a purely strategic level, it was a clever marketing move that helped take the wind out of competitors' sails. It also added more complexity to an already complex topic.

Phase 1

Verizon ushered in the first real phase of 5G with the launch of its 5G Home fixed wireless Internet service in 2018, and shortly thereafter with the launch of its "5G Ultra Wideband" mobile network in parts of a handful of downtown areas around the country.

The operator's service worked on Verizon's extensive high-band, millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum holdings and offered blazing-fast speeds – albeit in just a few outdoor locations.

Verizon wasn't alone in offering mmWave 5G services – AT&T also launched the service in a number of major cities, as did T-Mobile. But Verizon was the operator that loudly touted the network.

In the early days of 5G, Verizon officials implied that their mmWave 5G network would eventually cover large numbers of Americans – a tall order considering mmWave signals typically travel less a few thousand feet in ideal conditions.

Phase 2

T-Mobile was the noisy champion of the second phase of 5G, which involved operators deploying the technology on their low-band spectrum holdings to cover wide swathes of the country with 5G speeds that were not much faster than 4G.

The whipsaw between high-band 5G (fast but small coverage areas) and low-band 5G (slow but covering large areas) was painfully apparent in T-Mobile's 5G messaging. In the summer of 2019, T-Mobile promised that 5G speeds "will be up to 10x faster, compared to LTE." But by the end of 2019, after the launch of its low-band 5G offering, T-Mobile began warning reviewers and customers that its new low-band 5G network would be on average only 20% faster than its 4G LTE network.

Verizon and AT&T offered similar warnings of low-band 5G speeds, despite an endless series of ads touting the game-changing nature of their 5G services. Indeed, PCMag began warning readers to turn off their Verizon 5G to obtain faster connections on the operator's 4G network (see also: Get ready for 'Phase 3' of 5G in the US | Light Reading).

Can We Discuss This in EASIER Layman’s Terms?

As we get ready for the next Phase of 5G deployment, it’s important to dissect the different technologies used by the carriers.

High-Band, millimeter wave, as Mr. Dano stated, “not far but very fast!” Verizon was by far the most advanced using this albeit in outdoor stadiums and downtown urban areas.

Low-Band, where T-Mobile has taken a leadership role covering over 300 million people in the US but with speeds only 20%-30% faster than their 4G in the 600-700 megahertz parts of their network.

Mid-Band is providing the “turning point” in 5G with T-Mobile again taking the overall lead. Acquiring the mid-band 2.5GHz spectrum during the Sprint merger, mid-band provides both faster speed and broader penetration, giving hope that the promises of 5G will be realized. T-Mobile claims that this technology currently covers 200+ million pops in the US.

AT&T and Verizon, knowing that they trailed T-Mobile in the mid-band arena spent approximately $80 billion between the two companies in the recent “C-Band” auction for this spectrum and claim that they will each cover about 200 million pops by the end of 2021.

How Are We Doing With the 5G Network Buildouts?

Well, for all of the hype, advertising and billions of dollars spent on acquiring spectrum and building the networks, Mike Dano claims that “overall, the US carriers are about 30% complete on their 5G network buildouts.” He expects that, ‘there is still a solid five (5) years more until a full buildout is reached in 2028 (and then here comes 6G!!).”

What about DISH? I asked him. Mike’s take on DISH was not surprising. “Dish doesn’t have the resources (to build out a 5G network) so they will try to compete on price, security and flexibility.” Their first 5G network planned for Las Vegas was postponed until the fourth quarter of this year so they are potentially already having issues building their 5G network from the ground up.

Okay, So What’s an MVNO To Do?

As an MVNO, what steps should you be undertaking today to ensure that the MVNO train doesn’t leave you behind? My advice is simple:

Stay The Course.

There is nothing you can do that will alter or change the carrier’s strategy in their 5G buildouts. My checklist for you is as follows:

  • Continue to purchase 5G ready handsets
  • Educate yourself on your network provider’s 5G coverage and pro and cons versus the MNO you use and the others.
  • Make sure that your agreements call for you getting 5G with your MNO automatically
  • Look for new opportunities in the B2B and B2C segments, offering faster service to new verticals like gaming, transportation, medical, etc.
  • Consider bringing in smaller MVNOs into your fold if your MNO allows it

The 5G messages will continue to bombard us. Who’s faster? Who’s bigger? Who covers the most population? Cut through the clutter and listen to your customers. Do they need speed or coverage? Are you penetrating new B2B opportunities? Are you speaking with your underlying network provider or MVNE to see when they will actually have solid 5G coverage in your trading area?

The one thing that I will agree on is that the opportunity exists for all of us in the MVNO space to have a tremendous opportunity to GROW around the 5G phenomenon.

Opportunity knocks only so often, don’t miss the chance to capitalize on “the next best thing” in wireless.

We are here to help.

Good Selling!


Jon Horovitz
Jon Horovitz has been in the wireless industry as a senior executive for 33+ years. He headed up sales and operations in leadership roles for McCaw Communications, AT&T Wireless, Nextel, Boost Mobile, and Sprint. He has owned an MVNO as well as assisted in the start-up of many others. In 2022, Jon was named United States Ambassador to MVNO Nation (based in London and supporting 6000+ MVNOS). In 2024 he started The Boon of Wireless Podcast, available on all of the podcast streaming channels. The Boon of Wireless is a podcast about and for the wireless telecom community.

Jon's consulting company, Atrium Unlimited, LLC, advises carriers, MVNOs, investment bankers, and venture capitalists interested in joining the wireless space.

Jon would love to hear from you about any consultative needs you may have.

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