technology

U.S. Wireless Carriers Plan to Launch 5G With ‘Pucks’ Not Phones

  • First 2018 consumer gear on 5G will be portable hotspots
  • 5G phones won’t arrive until the 1H of 2019, says Verizon exec

AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., conceding that phones won’t be available in time for the launch of fifth-generation mobile service this year, plan instead to offer 5G through portable hotspots called pucks.

“I would expect that there are a range of handsets available in 2019 and some of those will be in the first half of 2019,” Verizon’s wireless chief, Ronan Dunne, said Monday in an interview at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. “If there’s anything available in 2018, it’s more likely to be a hotspot.”

In a race to be first with technology that will let cars drive themselves and robots perform surgery, the wireless service providers, including No. 3 T-Mobile US Inc., have announced ambitious timelines on the launch of 5G. Sticking with the plan even if phones aren’t ready highlights how none of the carriers wants to be left behind in what’s expected to be a whole new round of revenue from the sale of advanced-network services.

Equipment makers like Ericsson AB and Nokia Oyj are eagerly developing 5G gear to cash in on the building boom. But new networks will need new phones, and that’s where the race hits hurdles.

China Concern

Among the first crop of 5G phones will be handsets from China-based manufacturers like Huawei Technologies Co., Xiaomi Corp. and ZTE Corp. Both Huawei and ZTE face a roadblock in the U.S. amid concerns the companies possible ties to the Chinese government could pose a security risk. ZTE says it will have a 5G phone available as early as year-end. Verizon and AT&T both dropped plans to carry Huawei phones.

Randall Stephenson, AT&T’s chief executive officer, introduced the idea of the puck during the company’s earnings call last month. A puck is portable antenna that allows a user to connect a mobile device to the new super-fast wireless network.

“The thing that’s going to cause 5G to go slow, more than anything else, it’s just availability of handsets,” he said. “That’s why we’re going to be deploying pucks in the first part of our deployment.”

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