Q&A: Verizon’s VP of Technology on the carrier’s past, present and future 5G strategy

In the wake of the record-breaking C Band auction, RCR Wireless News caught up with Heidi Hemmer, VP of Technology at Verizon — which, alone, spent $52.9 billion on the mid-spectrum spectrum — to find out more about the carrier’s overall approach to 5G rollouts, as well as what is in store for the remainder of 2021.

The below interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q: Tell me a little bit about Verizon’s 5G spectrum strategy. Why the early focus on mmWave?

Hemmer: Verizon did make a decision early on to focus on mmWave because we had a path to obtain that spectrum and we also believe that the first 5G we rolled out, should be a game changer for customers, and mmWave provides increased speeds and capacity. We felt we should be able to provide that game-changing experience for customers and at the same time, maintain, or even improve, the experience for our 4G customers.

We built [mmWave] and we are continuing to build that where customer experience matters. Places like stadiums and outdoors venues, the middle of cities, in parks. Places where the use cases that our customers would use require that speed, capacity and low latency.

Then, in October of last year, we launched our nationwide 5G network, which today, is very similar to our 4G network, but that allows us to share our low-band spectrum with both 4G and 5G customers. This will allow us to elegantly move our customers over to the 5G network once they get 5G capable devices. As we get additional software that will provide additional functionality, all those customers will be on the NR network on the new 5G technology, and we will be able to start to provide them experiences that look different from our LTE experience.

Q: Speaking of customer experience, can you describe what that will be like as one walks through one of Verizon’s 5G-connected cities?

Hemmer: Today, on 5G and 4G, we utilize all the spectrum that we currently hold on our portfolio. That can vary from market to market, but we built the network and optimized it through software to be able to seamlessly have your phone hand down and hand back up across those spectrum bands.

So, today, if you were within the coverage area of a 5G Ultra Wide Band or mmWave network, your iPhone 12, for example, would have a 5G UW icon in the corner. If you then moved into a 5G nationwide area, you would see the 5G icon, but not the UW. Your speeds would be very different in these two areas. If you go into an area that we haven’t put the 5G equipment at all, you’d see the LTE icon.

Q: How did Verizon manage to continue its 5G rollout despite the challenges presented by COVID-19?

Hemmer: We actually had incredibly ambitious targets in place prior to being hit with the pandemic, but we still hit all of our targets or exceeded them. One of the biggest things from a 5G perspective is, we had to scale the small cells we were building by over 5 times. That is because one of the downsides of mmWave is, it doesn’t cover very far.

One of the things that building a lot of small cells requires is a lot of permits, and when COVID hit, most of the permitting offices shut down, so we worked with those offices to help them get onto digital platforms. Before COVID, we had already been working on a digital platform to help the municipalities just because of the sheer growth in the numbers, but when everyone went home as a result of COVID, we would not have been able to keep the permit pipeline and the builds going without the ability to transfer information with those offices in a safe way. We were able to keep those permits flowing for us.

In addition, when most geographies were shut down, we actually worked with the municipalities to increase our construction rate, because there was no traffic on the street. One of things we’ve done to scale is made use of our fiber arm, and with everything shut down, we were able to dig up streets and build ahead on some of our fiber.

What are some of Verizon’s main 5G goals for 2021 and what did it accomplish in 2020?

Hemmer: We currently have 67 Ultra Wide Band cities, with built 61 by the end of last year. We will continue to add more cities between now and the end of 2021, reaching a total of 80 by the end of the year. We are also continuing to densify and increase the coverage in those 67 that we have already built.

We are currently in 54 stadiums and arenas and will do a little more this year. We actually have a partnership with the NBA for 5G.

We launched nationwide for over 200 million people, which includes 2,700 cities that we cover. You’ll continue to see that number grow. We have the 5G home product that is currently in 18 markets and we currently have 10 MEC markets with another 10 expected this year.

Q: Why is 5G accelerating faster that previous generations?

Hemmer: I helped build 3G and 4G, and now I’m building 5G, so I have seen that each one is adopted and built sooner. First, our customers want it so badly. As the devices and the network have been able to provide more and more applications and usability, our customers just rely on them so much, so they are less patient to get that next tech upgrade.

Second, as we become more software-centric, it is easier to deploy the next generation. It’s not easy, but once we get the equipment out there, any sort of upgrades can be done via software now.

Q: What made the C Band so much of a priority not just for Verizon, specifically, but the entire transition to 5G in the US?

Hemmer: The excitement around 5G is palpable. As customers and enterprises realize what 5G can enable in this time of digital transformation, it is critical to continue expanding our 5G reach to meet the demand and provide the revolutionary changes that accompany a technology with these fundamental capabilities. With the addition of this new C-Band spectrum to our overall spectrum portfolio, we will continue to expand the industry leading 5G network which is the platform that enables 21st century innovation. C Band provides a valuable middle ground between capacity and range for 5G networks, providing greater capacity and speeds than low band and greater coverage than mmWave. By advancing our network with C Band, we accelerate the pace of innovation for our own company and for our customers. An additional and very appealing aspect of C Band is that it is a widely used band globally with a mature ecosystem of chipsets, devices and network infrastructure. That means deployment will be faster and global roaming and interoperability capabilities will be possible on this band.

Q: Any 2021 goals for the C Band spectrum you can share at this time?

Hemmer: With the 2021 spectrum clearing activity underway in the initial 46 markets, we intend to have incremental 5G bandwidth available to 100 million POPs in the first half of 2022: 46 markets, delivering 5G Ultra Wideband performance on our C Band spectrum with peak speeds of 1 gigabit per second. These great speeds and throughputs are just the beginning. Over 2022 and 2023, we expect to increase the coverage to more than 175 million POPs in the 46 markets. And when the remaining C band is cleared, we expect to cover more than 250 million POPs in 2024 and beyond.

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