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Are the First Customers of 5G the Winners or Losers?

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If you live in the northeast or the midwest and crave faster wireless Internet, you may be in for a bit of a wait. AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile have started to roll out their super-fast fifth generation, or 5G, wireless services and the initial regions have a decidedly western and southern flavor.

Verizon’s first four markets for its home 5G service, which opened in October, are Sacramento, Houston, Los Angeles, and Indianapolis. On Tuesday, AT&T announced its even more ambitious mobile 5G service, usable via a $500 Netgear portable Wi-Fi hotspot. The first 12 cities getting service include Atlanta, Dallas, New Orleans, and Jacksonville. A second wave from AT&T coming in the first half of 2019 covers some big western cities including L.A., Las Vegas, and San Francisco.

In all, there’s a single midwestern city of Indianapolis—but nothing for New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Philadelphia, and so on. (Full disclosure: as you may know, I’m based in Boston.)

Maybe T-Mobile will be a savior for the neglected regions. The number three carrier says its 5G network will start in six of the 10 largest cities, but has named only Los Angeles and New York, so far. So there’s that.

Does it have to do with 5G signals in cold weather? Let’s not start that conspiracy theory. But the regional hold up may be business related or perhaps due to infrastructure. The south and west have been growing faster than other parts of the country (Amazon and Google’s recent headquarters decisions not withstanding). Also land is cheaper and more plentiful there, perhaps making it easier and less costly to build out the networks needed to offer 5G.

On the other hand, customers in the neglected regions may be lucky. The earliest 5G services and devices look a little less than compelling. At least for Verizon and AT&T, the first services rely on high frequency, so-called millimeter wave airwaves, like 28 GHz. Signals in those bands carry lots of data but don’t travel far or penetrate obstacles like trees, meaning coverage will be spotty for a while. Analysts are also raising concerns about the weight and battery life of early 5G phones. And rumor has it there won’t be a 5G iPhone until at least 2020. So to my fellow northeasterners I say: Let’s let everyone else work out the kinks. We’ll be ready for 5G when 5G is ready for us. #sourgrapes.

Update: I missed Sprint’s recent announcement of a 5G service using a “mobile smart hub” coming in the first half of 2019 to nine cities, including Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C. No pricing yet from the fourth-largest carrier.