Much less expensive 5G phones will hit the US market in 2020, but only for T-Mobile and Sprint.
A very technical new T-Mobile/MediaTek press release touts a “standalone call in a multi-vendor environment that mirrors actual 5G deployment.” The important part is that MediaTek, which makes lower-cost cell phone modems, has now shown that its M70 chipset works on both Sprint’s and T-Mobile’s networks. If I’m reading properly between the lines, this means both Sprint and T-Mobile’s 5G phones may come markedly cheaper.
“Over the next year, we will continue to collaborate with T-Mobile to help drive 5G network deployment,” MediaTek’s TL Lee says in the release.
This makes more sense when put in the context of an interview I had with MediaTek CEO Joe Chen in February. Back then, Chen said his company would have a smartphone chipset ready for phones in late 2020 that could bring 5G handset prices down to $450 or so.
There are three main forms of 5G right now. Mid-band is used by most international carriers and Sprint. Low-band will be used by T-Mobile, and to a lesser extent by AT&T and Verizon. Both of those bands use existing cellular frequencies and antennas. Super high-speed millimeter-wave (mmWave) requires entirely new antenna designs and is only used by US carriers right now.
MediaTek is initially focusing on low- and mid-band 5G. The idea is to target for the broadest international reach without having to deal with the complexities of mmWave antennas. MediaTek’s press release touting a standalone 5G data call signals that T-Mobile and Sprint (especially if they merge) may push manufacturers to develop lower-cost 5G phones based on MediaTek’s products.
AT&T and Verizon Left Out
AT&T and Verizon, which rely more heavily on mmWave 5G, are going to be left out here. Millimeter-wave, which has short range but very high speeds, currently only works with Qualcomm’s full chipset and antenna solution, which is pretty expensive.
Unless prices on mmWave equipment come down, this may result in a bifurcated 5G handset market, with lower-cost phones coming to lower-band carriers first. MediaTek may have a mmWave solution in 2021, Chen said in February.
We’re following all the current developments on our Race to 5G page.