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Race to 5G: March 2019 Update

||Race to 5G: March 2019 Update
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Race to 5G: March 2019 Update

The US carriers didn’t launch any new 5G products in February, but they gave us a much clearer idea of what’s coming soon. Here’s the full rundown.

Carriers are still on their starting blocks for the Race to 5G, but at the MWC19trade show in Barcelona at the end of February, we got a better view of where they’re going later this year.

MWC19 was a breakout show for 5G devices, giving us our first hands-on time with several 5G phones and hotspots. We’re probably going to have two 5G phones on the market by June. The Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, which will come out first on Verizon and then on other carriers, feels like a slightly inflated Galaxy S10+. The LG V50 for Sprint and Verizon has an innovative dual-screen case that can turn it into the first affordable “folding phone.” I expect both devices to retail for between $1,100 and $1,600.

We also saw a bunch of 5G phones that aren’t destined for the US at MWC19, aimed both higher and lower in the market than the ones we’ll be seeing at home. The $2,600 Huawei Mate X folding phone (pictured below) will be the ultimate 5G prestige product. OnePlus’ 5G phone for EE in the UK and the Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 5G(pictured at the top of the page) are both likely to cost under $1,000 when they launch in Europe, undercutting our 5G options. They won’t be usable in the US because of different frequency bands used in different countries, though.

AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon will have hotspots on the market by June. We’ve already seen AT&T’s Netgear Nighthawk 5G, which is in quasi-retail commercial trials right now, and Inseego’s MiFi for Verizon. MWC added HTC’s unusual 5G Hub for Sprint, which kind of looks like an Amazon Echo Show. The 5G Hub looks like it could be a great way to add 5G internet to a home or office, but Sprint isn’t willing to tell us if it will have service plans appropriate for that kind of use.

T-Mobile and Verizon were more forthcoming about their service plans at MWC. T-Mobile pledged that 5G, at least on phones, will be unlimited and won’t be more expensive than its 4G plans. It left a home internet loophole, though, in that it didn’t promise unlimited plans for devices other than phones. Verizon said it would extend its fixed home internet product to cities where it launches mobile internet in the future.

All of those carriers, though, beat AT&T’s perplexing hotspot service plan, which charges $70 per month for 15GB. If that’s what 5G is going to be priced like, I might as well just end this series now. I’m not ending the series now, because I think that service plan is a mistake that will soon be fixed.

Sprint gave us the most concrete 5G coverage update at MWC19, promising to launch four cities (Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, and Kansas City) in May and five more (Houston, LA, New York, Phoenix, and Washington) a little later. The carrier also delivered the first official 5G coverage maps we’ve seen (pictured below), and its 5G coverage at launch will greatly outstrip what we’ve seen so far from AT&T and Verizon. If Sprint lives up to its promises, it will get the first points for 5G coverage on our scorecard.

Sprint Shows the First Real 5G Coverage Maps

I think we’ll see some news from both AT&T and Verizon toward the end of this month. AT&T promised to flip its Nighthawk hotspot over from controlled release to full retail release in early 2019, and we’re running out of early 2019. Various whispers tell me Verizon has a good chance of launching mobile 5G in late March or early April. It hasn’t promised anything, because at Verizon the network division calls the shots, and it’ll launch no network before its time. So I wouldn’t be too concerned if it’s a little later than that timetable.

Neville Ray, T-Mobile’s CTO, also seems to still be making his launch timing decisions. When I spoke to him at MWC19, he explained that his exact launch dates are going to depend on what he thinks of various software updates his infrastructure providers are delivering. That’s frustrating, but for what it’s worth, I think it’s a better approach than a marketing-driven, “We’ll launch by X date, no matter what,” pledge. That tends to result in misfires like the BlackBerry Storm.

Why can Sprint be firmer than T-Mobile or Verizon? Sprint’s reaping the benefits of using lower-frequency spectrum, which is better established and easier to work with than the millimeter-wave frequencies T-Mobile and Verizon are starting out with. For a little more on that, see my piece on 5G vs. 5GE vs. 5GHz.

We only rate carriers on releases, not promises, so we’re not updating any of our scores for the carriers this month. AT&T and Verizon still get points for one device each (AT&T’s Netgear hotspot and Verizon’s home internet unit), and no one gets any points for coverage or overall speed. Next month, though, that could definitely change.