Feb 3, 2020 - Technology

Verizon and T-Mobile battle over 5G at the Super Bowl

Screenshot from Verizon ad via YouTube

The 49ers and Chiefs weren't the only ones trying to score some points on Super Bowl Sunday as Verizon and T-Mobile used football's big day to trade shots over each other's 5G networks.

Why it matters: 5G is starting to arrive, but in different flavors and at different speeds — and with all the heavy marketing hype and consumer confusion that has accompanied past transitions from one generation of wireless to the next.

Driving the news:

  • Things began even before kickoff, with a Verizon ad touting its speedy 5G service and insisting its existing 4G network is both faster and more widely available than T-Mobile's 5G network. T-Mobile CEO John Legere responded in a blog post criticizing the limited range of Verizon's 5G.
  • During the game, Legere and T-Mobile network chief Neville Ray posted video on Twitter of a T-Mobile phone getting 5G service throughout the stadium and a Verizon device only getting it intermittently.
  • Things really heated up for Verizon after the company's Super Bowl ads aired, with spots devoted to praising first responders. The ads brought up negative responses on Twitter, since Verizon had been heavily criticized for throttling the speeds of first responders battling California wildfires in 2018.

The big picture: Heavily touted for its eventual benefits of ultra-fast speeds, 5G is just starting to arrive. In many cases offers only modest speed boosts (T-Mobile and AT&T's initial 5G rollout, which uses low-band airwaves) or very minimal availability (Verizon's network, which uses millimeter-wave frequencies).

  • To use either flavor of 5G, customers need to purchase one of only a handful of 5G phones on the market.

Our thought bubble: None of the 5G offerings on the market are particularly compelling at the moment. What's really needed is a network that, first, gives consumers enough places where they can use high-speed 5G connections, and second, works with the device they want to use (or at least one they want to buy). That will start to be more of a reality later this year.

Go deeper:

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Team Trump's 5G misfires

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Trump administration, eager to win the 5G race and outflank China's Huawei, has run one plan after another up the flagpole — but found it hard to keep any of them flying.

Driving the news: White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow aired a new approach Tuesday to speed the emergence of U.S.-led alternatives to Huawei. Attorney General William Barr dismissed the same idea Thursday as "pie in the sky."

Barr scoffs at White House's anti-Huawei 5G approach

Attorney General William Barr. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Attorney General William Barr on Thursday dismissed a new White House-led effort to build 5G using homegrown equipment and said the government should instead consider investing in Nokia or Ericsson to counter the threat of Huawei dominating the next-generation networks.

The big picture: While the Trump administration broadly agrees about the need to develop a clear and cohesive 5G policy and keep Chinese equipment out of the forthcoming networks, there has been widespread disagreement about how to get there.

What they're saying: Judge blesses T-Mobile-Sprint deal

T-Mobile CEO John Legere (left) and Sprint Chairman Marcelo Claure testifying before Congress. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Sprint and T-Mobile on Tuesday hailed a federal judge's ruling that should pave the way for their deal to be completed, while opponents worried that consumers will ultimately end up paying more.

Why it matters: The decision turns back a legal challenge from a coalition of state attorneys general that had been the largest remaining hurdle for the deal, though it still requires a few more approvals.