AT&T delivers 5G, Verizon tries to kill 3G

The news today had two completely different stories. One was focused on the future, and one on the past. When you look at them together though, they paint a very interesting picture.

AT&T brings true 5G to a stadium

AT&T announced recently that they’ve implemented true 5G, using “millimeter-wave” frequencies, in the appropriately-named AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. That’s where the Dallas Cowboys play, by the way. It’s also not far from AT&T’s downtown Dallas headquarters.

Millimeter-wave 5G means cellular service in very high frequencies. Of all the cell carriers, AT&T is the only one with millimeter-wave experience, because it’s used in satellite dishes. In fact, until recently, AT&T was the only nationwide licensee of millimeter-wave reception equipment in the so-called Ka band. It’s obvious why they are able to take the lead here.

It’s not there are a lot of phones that will work with millimeter-wave 5G, not yet. In fact I don’t think there are any consumer phones. But being so close to AT&T HQ, you can bet there are plenty of prototypes. Putting 5G into a real world scenario that’s likely to attract engineers with prototype phones is going to help push the technology forward.

Verizon can’t let go of 3G

Throughout the 2000s, AT&T used one technology and Verizon used another. AT&T’s GSM technology was based on European standards and works best in dense areas where you can have lots of small cell towers. Verizon’s CDMA technology was based on Asian standards and works best in larger open spaces with bigger towers. Most of us spent our days back then as to which was the better technology.

The decision was made by the marketplace and by the engineering community. LTE, the voice and data standard used by pretty much everyone now, is based off the GSM standard. For several years, Verizon has operated its old CDMA network for voice and 3G data, while using a new LTE network for better-sounding voice and high-speed data.

Recently, Verizon backed off a promise to turn off its old 3G network by the end of 2019. They’re not selling 3G phones, and they say the 3G network will only be for select enterprise customers who can’t move to LTE as quickly as they want. Still, this has to be a disappointment for the company which was hoping to realize some cost savings by turning off their old network.

The company now says it plans to be completely off 3G by the end of 2020, which might be a more realistic goal.

What this all means

AT&T chose the right technology 20 years ago and it’s blossoming. While they admittedly had some networking problems in major cities at one point — ironic since GSM is really better in major cities — they have taken off since and now boast a network that’s stronger than ever. Their contract with the US Government to build the FirstNet network means they’ll be able to close those few remaining coverage holes, and they will be able to support more phones than ever since their technology from ten years ago will remain compatible for probably another decade.

Verizon, on the other hand, finds itself where Sprint was all too often. Sprint has chosen a lot of technologies that the market didn’t embrace, including the chirpy Nextel phone and their oddball Clearwire implementation. They’ve had to work through these issues by making a lot of hardware obsolete, but they’ve struggled. Now it seems to be Verizon’s turn to struggle. Of course they are a worthy competitor, so I wish them all the best.