Illustration: Sam Jayne / Axios

When it comes to the four major carriers, everyone says they are going to be first with 5G.

Why it matters: It's always a race to be first with a new generation of technology (and to claim being first, which isn't always the same thing.) The stakes are extra high — both within the U.S. and on the global stage, with China, Korea, Japan and others all looking to be ahead of the game. (Here's a refresher on why 5G is a big deal.)

The rhetoric is heating up: Expect even more noise (and therefore more confusion) when the cellphone industry's big conference, Mobile World Congress, starts Feb. 26 in Barcelona, Spain.

Here's a snapshot of each company's plans:

AT&T

Their claim: First with mobile 5G.

The fine print: AT&T plans to offer "mobile" 5G in a dozen cities this year, including Atlanta, Dallas and Waco, Texas. This year mobile will likely be limited to a mobile hotspot rather than phones. However, AT&T says it's starting, not stopping, with a hotspot and will likely have phones in the first half of next year too.

TBD: Whether being first with a hotspot in a few cities will translate to leadership in phones.

Money quote: "I believe we’ll be first with mobile 5G," AT&T VP Gordon Mansfield tells Axios. As for who will be first with a nationwide network, he's not ready to hand that title to rivals: "I guess we’ll see how that really shakes out."

Verizon

Their claim: First with 5G.

The fine print: Verizon plans to have 5G service in at least 5 cities this year, but not in the traditional mobile sense. It's using early versions of 5G to offer fixed wireless service, that is an alternative to your home broadband, rather than any kind of mobile service.

TBD: Its mobile plans have yet to be announced in detail.

Sprint

Their claim: First with nationwide mobile 5G

The fine print: Sprint has a unique asset in the spectrum it acquired years ago from Clearwire. While others are looking to pair low-band spectrum for coverage with very high-band for maximum speed, Sprint thinks its 2.5GHz spectrum offers the best of both.

TBD: How fast Sprint can build out that network, which currently covers only a fraction of the U.S. "We’re focusing our efforts entirely on our 2.5GHz rather than try to do too many things at once," VP Ron Marquardt tells Axios.

Money quote: CEO Marcelo Claure tweeted on Feb. 14 that he spent the day in Korea meeting with Korean carriers and manufacturers: "Now more than ever I can say that Sprint will Be 1st in the US with a real 5G nationwide coverage and maybe 1st in the world."

T-Mobile

Their claim: Mobile 5G for smartphones.

The fine print: While AT&T plans to have mobile service this year, T-Mobile network chief Neville Ray tells Axios his focus is on the devices people care about most — smartphones.

TBD: The company has talked about using the nationwide 600MHz spectrum it acquired last year but hasn't talked yet about what high-frequency spectrum it will use, but that announcement could come in Barcelona next week.

Money quote: "There’s a lot of people claiming first to this first to that," Ray says. "What resonates with most folks and most consumers are smartphones. We want to be first to those products which we think are most meaningful."

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