It’s unknown exactly when Apple will launch its 5G iPhone. Reports suggest a September 15 event will focus on the iPad and Apple Watch. But when the 5G iPhone does launch, probably in October by the looks of things, Verizon had better be prepared, analysts say, and that means having dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) ready for prime time.
Verizon isn’t saying exactly when the DSS launch – which will enable the operator to claim 5G nationwide coverage – will occur. Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg previously said the timing was in the hands of Tami Erwin, EVP and CEO of Verizon Business Group, and Ronan Dunne, EVP and CEO of Verizon Consumer Group. Dunne didn’t reveal much this week when asked during a BofA Securities investor event about the thresholds for a DSS launch.
So far, Verizon’s 5G strategy has been focused on using the high-band millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum, of which it holds a lot, especially at 28 GHz. Rival T-Mobile in particular has taken every opportunity to bash Verizon for this strategy, pointing out that Verizon covers less than 1% of the country with 5G while T-Mobile has more 5G coverage than AT&T and Verizon combined.
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It's worth nothing that each of the Big 3 operators expect to use low-, mid- and high-band spectrum in 5G, but their strategies on timing and the amount of spectrum they hold in these bands differ greatly.
Throughout the year, Verizon has said the DSS commercial launch will happen in calendar year 2020. Rival T-Mobile’s President of Technology Neville Ray earlier this year threw cold water on the technology, but Verizon has been steadfast in saying its field tests are looking good and it will use DSS for nationwide coverage.
“We’ve been readying the network. Kyle Malady, our CTO, who has an amazing engineering team, has been preparing the network on the nationwide basis to optimize both the deployments of DSS, but also the carriers that we have in all of the spectral bands that we own,” Dunne said on Wednesday. “You’ll recall that up until now, we haven’t had more than about mid-50s percent of our spectrum actually allocated to LTE. So we have a number of tools in our arsenal to build out incremental capacity to optimize the network and make it ready for a great 5G nationwide experience.”
Thinking about the next big event, which is the 5G iPhone launch, BofA analyst Dave Barden asked whether it represents a big opportunity for Verizon to take mind share and highlight its Ultra Wideband 5G network experience.
“It’s not for me to speculate what any one device manufacturer will do in the fall or at any other time, but we’re very clear that for customers to benefit from the full extent of the capabilities [of] 5G, that we encourage device manufactures to think about 5G, including Ultra Wideband, i.e., millimeter wave, whenever they’re developing,” he said.
Preparing for launch
One of the knocks critics have made about DSS is it requires both 4G and 5G customers to share capacity, which they say will negatively affect performance for everyone.
Mark Lowenstein, managing director of Mobile Ecosystem, said there could be some hit to capacity, but Verizon has been planning on DSS for well over a year and will manage this carefully. (Indeed, Malady during an investor conference in February acknowledged DSS results in a slight capacity hit, but because they’ve known about that, Verizon started adding more 4G capacity to take care of that.)
“They should be in a pretty good position in cities, because of their aggressive small cell densification and fiber deployment program over the past three years,” Lowenstein told FierceWireless. “But they will have to manage the allocation of bandwidth – emphasize the word 'dynamic' in DSS. I suspect the result will be a 4G+ or 5G- experience, so Verizon can claim 'nationwide' 5G boasting rights, and be in the same league as its competitors.” Then, “mmWave takes the role of providing super-fast hotspots in parts of cities and certain venues. With DSS, I expect Verizon's 5G speeds will be better than T-Mobile's 600 MHz and not as good as T-Mobile's 2.5 GHz markets,” Lowenstein said.
The timing for Verizon's deployment of DSS is also critical, with Apple's 5G iPhone launch imminent, he noted. “Verizon has the largest iPhone share of any U.S. MNO, and they can't realistically market a 5G iPhone with only mmWave 5G coverage. They'd get hammered by their competitors for that,” he said.
The value of low band
Of course, part of the reason for Verizon’s DSS launch is it just wants the ability to market and advertise that it has a nationwide 5G network and for customers to see the 5G icon on their phone, noted Mike Thelander, CEO and founder to Signals Research Group (SRG), a research consultancy that does field research.
But for T-Mobile, as well as Verizon and AT&T, “when you’re dealing with that low-band spectrum, there’s just not a lot of it. The impact on total data speeds is going to be very modest regardless of it being DSS or just being a 5G radio carrier by itself. It’s not going to have that much of an impact,” he said.
The bottom line is, unless it’s using mid-band spectrum – which T-Mobile is aggressively deploying using the 2.5 GHz it got from Sprint – or millimeter wave, which is Verizon’s focus, the customer experience between LTE and 5G isn’t that big a deal at the lower frequencies. “You can measure it,” from a technical testing point of view, but the average person on the street isn’t going to notice much difference, he said, noting that there are exceptions.
Once you start talking mid-band frequencies like Sprint’s 2.5 GHz and the C-band spectrum being auctioned later this year, and with mmWave, “that’s where 5G is going really going to separate itself when it comes to just data speeds.” The other things about 5G, such as low latency and high reliability, are not use cases and features that are deployed today. “If you’re just talking data speeds, 5G versus LTE in these lower frequency bands … no one is going to notice the difference,” he said.