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Previous Columns

February 11, 2021
Latest Modems from Qualcomm and MediaTek Highlight 5G Progress

January 27, 2021
C-Band Auction Points to Dramatic Shift in 5G

January 21, 2021
GeForce Now Alliance Growth Shows Opportunity for 5G Gaming

January 21, 2021
Economic Analysis of mmWave 5G Highlights Potential Benefits

January 14, 2021
Latest Samsung Phones Highlight Evolution of 5G

January 12, 2021
5G Makes Waves at CES 2021

2020 Forbes Columns

2019 Forbes Columns

Forbes Columns
TECHnalysis Research president Bob O'Donnell writes a regular column in Forbes and those columns are posted here and archived on this site.

February 23, 2021
New T-Mobile Plan Highlights the 5G Service to Come

By Bob O'Donnell

For many people, news from major telco carriers about data plan changes isn’t always high on their list of priorities. In part, this may be because a large percentage of people probably don’t even know what kind of data plan they currently have, so it can be hard to put the news into context. The simple truth is, picking a data plan is something that people often only do when they buy a new phone or switch carriers. It’s kind of a “set it and forget it” type of deal.

But in the 5G era, that shouldn’t really be the case, and T-Mobile’s newly announced, forward-looking Magenta Max plan offers a good reason why. First, Magenta Max brings back something that many have longed for: truly unlimited wireless data on smartphones with no caps on data usage or no speed slowdowns via throttling.

Many other carriers have offered “unlimited” plans in the past, but reading the fine print often led to loopholes that prevented them from being truly unlimited on both vectors if certain conditions were met. In some cases, plans that started out as unlimited ended up having limitations placed on them after some period. Of course, there’s no way to guarantee that T-Mo won’t do the same at some point in the future, but there are some technical reasons why they probably won’t. Interestingly, I think they reflect where 5G services are going overall.

The key point to remember about T-Mobile when it comes to 5G is that, right now, they have a huge advantage over both Verizon and AT&T when it comes to the amount of radio frequency (RF) signals they can use to deliver 5G service. In particular, because of its acquisition of Sprint and all its assets in April of 2020, T-Mobile gained access to a large chunk of critical mid-band frequencies (centered around 2.5 GHz) that they have just started enabling for 5G service.

Now, understanding all the intricacies and implications of various carriers’ RF spectrum holdings can be an enormously complex topic, but the important thing to remember when it comes to 5G is that there are basically three different types of signals using three different frequency ranges that can be used to deliver the service. Each of these signal types can deliver different levels of 5G capabilities that, for the most part, are determined by their physical characteristics (see “The 5G Landscape, Part 2: Spectrum and Devices” for more.

Low-band signals under 1 GHz (such as the 600 MHz frequency T-Mo uses and the 850 MHz frequency deployed by AT&T) cover vast distances per cell transmission tower/site, but have limited bandwidth and, therefore, slower speeds. In fact, in some instances the download rates can even be slower than 4G LTE, but they do allow the companies to create nationwide 5G coverage. At the other extreme, millimeter wave (mmWave) signals at 24 GHz and higher, which Verizon has focused much of its initial 5G service on (but which all 3 major US carriers have deployed to some degree or other), can offer tremendously fast speeds, but have extremely limited range—think one city block per transmission site. In addition, mmWave signals are subject to interference from many things in the real-world—including walls, which they cannot penetrate—which limits their usefulness in many environments.

For many carriers around the world, including T-Mobile, mid-range signals in the 2.5-4 GHz range are the “just right” porridge that offers really good coverage and really good speeds. They’re not the fastest possible nor the farthest reaching, but they offer the right combination of capabilities to make them a great set of frequencies around which to build a robust 5G service. In fact, in every country around the world except the US, new 5G networks started with mid-band. In the US that couldn’t happen because many key mid-band frequencies were being used for other applications, but that’s finally started to change in a big way. In fact, the recent C-Band auctions for access to frequencies in the 3.7-4 GHz range raised over $81 billion dollars, highlighting how eager all the US carriers are to use them (see “C-Band Auction Points To Dramatic Shift In 5G” for more.)

What’s interesting about T-Mobile’s efforts, as well as the opportunities that the C-Band (and soon other mid-band frequencies) will enable when they start to come online is that they represent a new era for telecom. Specifically, they highlight the possibility of being able to use cellular networks in ways that haven’t really been practical before.

In the same way that we never hear of data limitations being place on WiFi networks, we’re headed towards an era when data limitations on cellular networks may start to become the exception as opposed to the rule. To be clear, RF spectrum is very precious, and it’s never going to be truly unlimited. However, the often-draconian limits placed on cellular networks’ usage will start to fade as 5G networks continue to grow. In fact, arguably one of the biggest early benefits of 5G is going to be the breaking down of these connectivity barriers.

Not only does this mean we should start to see more truly unlimited data plans, but it opens up the opportunity for other cellular network-based services to go mainstream. In particular, using cellular networks to compete with cable providers for home broadband via a wireless network instead of the typical wired one becomes not only possible, but increasingly likely in this new 5G era.

Using a technology referred to as FWA (fixed wireless access), carriers can not only provide an alternative to cable companies and other internet service providers, but they can also extend internet access to areas that are harder (or more expensive) to reach with wire-based services. Each of the major carriers have done some previous work with FWA, including a 5G Home service from Verizon in certain locations (see “Can 5G become your new broadband connection?” for more) but not surprisingly, T-Mobile is planning to leverage its mid-band spectrum to launch a broadly available 5G-based fixed wireless offering later this year. Given the large amount of data that most home broadband connections consume, this is an even clearer example of how cellular connections are being fundamentally rethought.

So, while it may be easy to miss the news of something like T-Mobile’s new Magenta Max plan, the truth is, it provides a fascinating peak into where 5G and cellular connectivity are starting to head.

Disclosure: TECHnalysis Research is a tech industry market research and consulting firm and, like all companies in that field, works with many technology vendors as clients, some of whom may be listed in this article.

Here’s a link to the original column:

Forbes columnist Bob O'Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, a market research and consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community.