How Verizon Beat the Koreans (and Everyone Else) With the First 5G Phone Service

April 9, 2019, 2:59 PM UTC

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When Verizon consumer group president Ronan Dunne and his team pressed the button to send out their press release last week announcing the first 5G mobile phone service, they made sure to do it just before 11 a.m. Eastern Time.

That’s because across the globe, on the other side of the International Date Line in South Korea, 11 a.m. Eastern on April 3 is midnight on April 4. And Dunne, who’s headed up Verizon’s push to build a super-fast fifth generation, or 5G, network, wanted the bragging rights of being first not just in the United States, but in the world. Korean carriers, who’d originally said they were launching on April 8, had pushed up their announcement to April 4. Dunne’s press release went out at 10:58.

“So we date stamped it—whether you’re in Korea or whether you’re in the U.S.—we were the first network that launched on the 3rd of April,” a very proud Dunne told me when he was in Boston the next day. “That’s our little piece of history.”

The Irishman who came to Verizon almost three years ago from British wireless carrier O2, where he was CEO, was also sporting a special lapel pin he’d had made up touting the 5G push. And it’s been quite a push, perhaps even a mad dash.

Testing with select customers started back in April 2017. Last October, the carrier started a limited, home Internet 5G service in parts of four cities. Then rival AT&T started a mobile service via a portable Wi-Fi hotspot in 12 cities in December. This February, Verizon said it would finally offer a phone-based mobile 5G service in 30 cities at some point this year. And then just last month, Verizon named Chicago and Minneapolis as its debut markets. With the debut set for…April 11. Fortunately for Dunne, the service was ready to go a week early.

Still, the initial reviews are a bit rough. The service only works in a few parts of the two cities and only with one particular Motorola phone using a special add-on pack. Samsung’s much slicker and (likely) more popular 5G edition of the Galaxy S10 phone is coming “relatively soon,” Dunne says. (Leaks predict a mid-May launch.) Tens of thousands of Verizon customers around the country have signed up to be notified of its arrival, he says. And Dunne promises network coverage will improve and expand “literally day by day.”

While Wall Street and many reviewers have expressed a healthy skepticism about the impact of 5G this year, Dunne remains exultant that Verizon’s winning the race—at least so far. Sprint says its 5G service is coming in May and T-Mobile is targeting the second half of the year. Both say their networks will have much better coverage. For now, only Dunne can take a victory lap, however:

“The reality of 5G is here and unequivocally proven because of our network and technology leadership,” he says. “The timing of whether it’s big in quarter X or quarter Y is a high quality problem. Two years ago, people were debating whether 5G was real. We just proved it.”

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