Major cellphone carriers plan to offer their customers free internet for four years if they ditch their old, slower wireless connections.
The carriers want to use that in a new program to try to entice customers to buy devices that run their newer, faster 5G internet services.
The plan comes as the five largest mobile networks are vying for dominance over 5G, an next-generation wireless service due to start rolling out starting next year, when regulators gave the networks the green light to do so. The big companies are already stocking stores with 5G phones and other gear designed to supercharge existing wireless networks. But one of the main attractions of buying phones and a device called a home hub is that they will be capable of running in the forthcoming 5G networks.
Yet the superfast 5G wireless networks are more than six years away, at the earliest.
They require much more spectrum — or airwaves — than traditional 4G networks. And so right now the rules are stacked against carriers using 5G to sell the next-generation internet service. For one thing, carriers are still figuring out which airwaves will be in demand and how much bandwidth they can actually offer. And even if they figure out the economics, they’re still bringing new devices to market — which is more of a problem in the U.S. and Europe.
The carriers are proposing a program that lets consumers still get 5G but not pay for data anymore. But they don’t tell customers what network service they’ll actually get when they buy a 5G device and without a contract.
The new 5G service would use the current 4G LTE network as a backup. That means the customer isn’t going to get super-fast 4G or 5G speeds, just the ability to stream video in one service, theoretically, and talk and text in the other. In Britain, carriers plan to offer free internet for four years. The program would offer free internet to consumers with 4G coverage or coverage similar to that of 3G or old-fashioned 2G.
The carriers would then tell customers if their old service has been converted to the faster 5G network and if the network they’re on is one of the ones that will be upgraded to 5G. Because it would work on the 4G network, those who don’t have LTE coverage would still get access to faster speeds when they move to 5G. A customer’s speeds could vary, depending on their location.
So the carriers would install both 5G and 4G equipment to their existing network equipment so customers don’t experience different network speeds or when they switch networks.
T-Mobile, the fourth largest wireless carrier in the U.S., plans to start the new service in 2019 with a “5G Essentials” plan that would include free internet access, but make other services, like mobile TV and mobile texting, available at a cost. The company has already been doing this in parts of the U.S. for a few years.
Another carrier is expected to launch its plans soon, but has not revealed its name. It is owned by Franco-American Orange SA and is now called 3 Group. Its 5G service will be based on existing 4G LTE equipment installed on the 4G network.
AT&T has unveiled plans to launch its 5G plans by the end of 2019, while Verizon plans to launch its 5G service by the end of 2020. Sprint, which is majority owned by Japan’s SoftBank, plans to launch a similar service by 2020.
The carriers have been testing this new service for several years in the U.S. while the broader industry has been waiting for a green light from the FCC. The FCC is expected to approve the new service, making it possible to offer the service at home to consumers who already own a smartphone and are not on contract.
The proposal would also let wireless providers resell their own 5G service, which could attract customers who would go with a new company over the older one. But that would require the FCC to further loosen the rules — something the FCC has not proposed doing in any other country.