There's no doubt the battle of 5G in the U.S. comes down to AT&T and Verizon. There are other players in the mix, most notable T-Mobile (or the 'New T-Mobile'), but most perceive the race to be first (and by association, the race to lead 5G) as between AT&T and Verizon.
However, MoffettNathanson analyst, Craig Moffett, (via Light Reading) suggests there might not be much of a battle at all. At least, during the opening 5G years and unless Verizon makes some clear changes to its rollout strategy. According to Moffett, AT&T, and even T-Mobile are currently better positioned to transition to 5G than Verizon.
Most of the prediction here is based on the use of millimeter wave, or mmWave spectrum. mmWave is often spoken of as one of the essential building blocks of a true 5G network, and it is, but it is also just one of the building blocks with mid and low-band spectrum also playing their roles.
What Moffett is essentially arguing is that Verizon is far too reliant on the use mmWave and this in the long-term may result in the likes of AT&T and T-Mobile being able to build out a far more thorough and capable 5G network on a nationwide basis.
The reason mmWave is so often touted as the go-to 5G solution is its ability to transmit data. It does so quickly and widely, but its downfall is distance. Not only is mmWave not designed for distance, but it is also understood to be prone to penetration issues and equally questions have been raised about its ability to cope with weather fluctuation.
In fact, in spite of its ability to carry greater data payloads, these potential issues are the very reasons that have turned carriers off using mmWave in the past. Instead, focusing on the use of other spectrum that's more reliable, albeit less capable.
With 5G, however, there's far more emphasis on data capacity transmission and this is where mmWave can prove critical. Due to its limitation, this is particular thought to be of benefit in more dense locations, such as cities.
In Verizon's case, focusing more on mmWave for building out its 5G network is certainly expected to help it within these denser locations, although the other factors including penetration are likely to remain an issue.
In its defense, Verizon has previously justified its emphasis on mmWave by stating mmWave has proven better than expected. In addition, Verizon has also previously argued that it is not actually relying on mmWave at all. It might be at the moment as it lays the groundwork for its 5G network, and in those more built-up areas, but Verizon points to the use of mmWave as only the first stage of building out its network.
For example, Verizon has also been busy refarming old spectrum to help in places and instances where mmWave might prove problematic. This is in addition to utilizing 'dynamic spectrum sharing' to help spread spectrum between 4G and 5G users. In other words, Verizon is thought to be banking on the use of its existing spectrum and newer technologies, along with mmWave to roll out its 5G network.
However, Moffett argues, Verizon's setup might not be enough to really elevate its 5G network beyond the experience offered via Verizon's 4G network. In contrast to AT&T, and even T-Mobile, who Moffett also argues, is striking a better balance between mmWave, mid and low-band spectrum.
It's worth noting Moffett is not majorly criticizing Verizon's setup, but simply saying that at the very least if it does not win the race to be the first with a solid enough 5G network nationwide, then it will likely lose the marketing battle.
The suggestion being that losing the battle to be perceived as the "ubiquitous" 5G provider in the U.S. is akin to losing the actual 5G battle.