T-Mobile’s bold, early moves to 5G have jumpstarted the U.S. telecoms sector, pushing Verizon and AT&T to catch up and contend with new competitors.

America’s two biggest telecoms firms, Verizon and AT&T, backed up their stated commitments to 5G at the FCC’s C-band auction in February, spending $52.9 billion and $27.4 billion respectively on the C-band spectrum that is critical to 5G networks. But the race is far from over, as T-Mobile gained a strong head start when it merged with Sprint last year, and new competitors are poised to claim their share of the market.

All three companies presented their 5G strategies in March, each in its own style, displaying differences in leadership and organizational culture. Verizon, led by CEO Hans Vestberg, makes a clear connection to corporate accounts and high margins. The more informal John Stankey, CEO of AT&T, balanced talk of 5G with enthusiasm for his firm’s ambitious growth plans for HBO Max. T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert radiates confidence. His company marked the one-year anniversary of its merger with Sprint the first week of April, the same week Sievert took the helm in 2020.

In the Sprint merger, T-Mobile gained 2.5GHZ radio-frequency spectrum. It added more from the recent auction, spending $9.3 billion. This means the company will have substantially greater 5G coverage than Verizon and AT&T. It is also thought to be up to two years ahead of them in large-scale 5G deployment. T-Mobile had to borrow to acquire Sprint, but says that cost savings from the merger will help fund its 5G expansion. Verizon and AT&T do not have the same advantage. The telecoms giants will need to invest another $16 - $18 billion combined in order to deploy what they acquired at the C-band auction, The Economist reports.

Also in the running is satellite provider Dish, which plans to build a new 5G network based on OpenRAN technology, starting this year. This will cost the company an estimated $10 billion, but Jonathan Chaplin of New Street Research believes that once Dish’s network is built, it will be far less costly to operate than those of Verizon and AT&T. Dish made its intentions clear last year, when it finalized the purchase of Sprint’s Boost Mobile business. Part of its strategy is to gain a ready customer base by acquiring smaller mobile carriers. In March the company announced it will acquire Republic Wireless.

Some sceptics question whether customers even want the high speeds that 5G offers, but they are in a dwindling minority. The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the necessity of connectivity in the consumer market, as it has become essential to working, schooling, entertainment and shopping.

Business customers are the most coveted prize, however. Potential commercial applications for 5G abound, from remote surgery and autonomous vehicles to video surveillance using facial recognition technology. These all require instant data processing. To achieve this, companies will need local data centers with 5G connectivity as well as remote cloud storage. Corporate accounts comprise a large share of Verizon’s and AT&T’s business. They will need what cloud providers like Amazon, Microsoft and Google have – assets that open the door for the mighty tech giants to enter the telecoms arena themselves.

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