Sprint customers in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas and Kansas City will be among the first to test the company's 5G wireless network when it launches in May, executives said Monday.
Expect an additional five markets — Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix and Washington, D.C. — to come online by the first half of the year, said Sprint chief executive Michel Combes.
The impending launch could make Sprint the first U.S. wireless carrier to offer a mass-market 5G service for smartphones in a global race to provide faster download speeds and support for new applications such as self-driving cars.
Customers of Google Fi, the wireless service run by Google on Sprint's network, will be able to connect to Sprint's 5G capabilities, as well, Combes said - though it is unclear when Google Fi customers will gain access to 5G smartphones that can take advantage of the new technology. For Sprint's own customers, 5G service will launch on the LG V50 ThinQ 5G, LG's first 5G-capable smartphone.
Company officials declined to say how Sprint's 5G plans will be sold to consumers, or at what price.
"We are in a very competitive market, so we will keep that for when we launch," Combes told reporters on a conference call Monday.
Wireless carriers are engaged in a fierce battle to win over consumers with the promise of 5G service. Verizon has vowed to deploy 5G to wireless customers in as many as 30 cities by the end of the year. Meanwhile, AT&T has targeted "at least 21 major cities" for its rollout. And T-Mobile has said it plans a nationwide network by 2020, starting with low-frequency airwaves that can travel farther than the high-frequency technology being used by AT&T and Verizon.
Pressure to be the "first" to 5G has resulted in a massive marketing war. Last year, Verizon said it was the first to deliver a form of 5G to consumers but only as a replacement for in-home broadband. AT&T had also said it was switching on its 5G wireless network in certain markets but only for select customers — and accessing the network required the use of a mobile hot spot.
Meanwhile, Sprint sued AT&T this year for promoting "5G Evolution," which Sprint said risked misleading consumers into thinking 5G was truly available when AT&T's network is, in fact, offering an upgraded version of existing 4G mobile data technology. AT&T this year began to replace the "LTE" icons on some smartphones with a "5G E" icon, saying it showed how AT&T was on the path toward 5G.
T-Mobile and Sprint have made 5G a central part of their argument for a $26 billion merger, claiming that together the two companies will be able to build a better 5G network than they could individually.
Sprint executive chairman Marcelo Claure told Congress recently that without a merger, his company could be forced to borrow money to build out its 5G network, adding costs that would be passed to customers. But opponents of the merger say the deal would ultimately give the combined company greater power to raise prices anyway, despite a three-year moratorium on price hikes T-Mobile has offered regulators to sweeten the deal. The Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission are considering whether to approve the merger.