Lightning-fast 5G wireless technology has slowly rolled out across the country. Over the past two years, Verizon introduced a version of 5G it’s 10 to 100 times faster than the average 4G connection. Coverage reached parts of 61 cities by the end of 2020. The company also introduced a slower version of 5G across the country which has attracted complaints of poor performance.
On Thursday, Verizon announced it was adding fast 5G in parts of three other cities: Colorado Springs; Columbia, SC; and Knoxville. The carrier said its 5G network-based home internet service that reaches parts of 12 cities adds six more cities: Miami; Phoenix; San Francisco; Saint Louis; Arlington, Texas; and Anaheim, California.
Verizon is fighting AT&T and T-Mobile, its 5G rivals, to woo consumers with the allure of much faster download speeds. Businesses, meanwhile, are keen to use 5G in manufacturing, healthcare, and other areas to reduce the time between data collection and IT, a feature that could prove useful for stand-alone devices. such as drones and self-driving cars.
Fortune spoke with Ronan Dunne, managing director of Verizon’s consumer group, which includes wireless and home internet service Fios, about the operator’s 5G plans for 2021 and why consumers should expect better experience nationwide.
(This interview has been edited and condensed.)
Fortune: 2020 has been quite a year. Have you met your 5G expansion goals, but have you been slowed down by the pandemic?
Dunne: From a construction standpoint, we’ve been on schedule all year. If the pandemic were to last into the second half of 2021, which nobody thinks I think will be, you could have an impact because of administrative slowdowns and other things. But in general, we were able to perform as planned in 2020, and obviously the quick start in 2021 is a function of what we have already built.
Where we’ve seen more operational impact is in our retail stores. We reopened them all in September. Then, in November and December, between 150 and 250 stores were closed on an average day. We were operating at approximately 85% of our business capacity.
So you’re announcing a few new markets for January, but do you have any goals for the whole year? Last year you wanted to add 30 new 5G mobile markets, and you hit 31.
We’re a little premature on this. We tend to give direction for next year at the end of our annual results. [Editor’s note: Verizon next reports yearly earnings on Jan. 26.] So I won’t be making specific announcements on the details of the plan for the rest of the year at this point.
I’m not sure yet if we’ll be posting so many details on the number of cities etc. that we did. But we’ll give general guidance when we do our results at the end of the month.
Last year you also rolled out a much slower version of 5G to most of the country. It has received mixed reviews. PC Magazine even busy consumers to turn off 5G on new iPhones. Are you expecting improvements there?
We are seeing continuous improvements. There are three pilots. The first is tweaking and optimizing the devices and the network side. Then, with new technology like 5G, you regularly get software upgrades that affect network equipment, improving signal strength and performance. And then we have an existing spectrum that is not fully allocated to 4G and 5G, so we can create more capacity and performance.
We were very happy. Listen, you pay your money, you make your choice. Some people who write it have other agendas. We’ve always been very transparent and said the nationwide 5G layer will be built on our best-in-class 4G LTE network. What we generally see is a 5% to 20% performance improvement over 4G.
You are also expanding your 5G home internet service. It didn’t get as much attention as 5G phones. You added a more powerful router for the service last year. What is the interest of customers?
When we first built the Fios Market [around 2005–06], we have seen the market churn rate increase – that is, that of others – as the arrival of a new product increases people’s propensity to change. This is exactly the same as what we see when we open up a 5G home market. We see this triggering greater consideration for change. And we’re converting to the levels we’ve seen in Fios in the past.
What this tells us is that while the volumes and numbers aren’t huge in the first year or two, the characteristics of people’s interest in the new product and willingness to change are consistent. . This is exactly what we were hoping for.
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