5G madness (or: Why no one gives a stuff who launched first)

5G launch
SK Telecom CEO Park Jung-ho launches the company's mobile 5G service on April 3, 2019. Image credit: SK Telecom

Last week, South Korea’s three main operators launched their 5G mobile services. At roughly the same time, US operator Verizon launched its own 5G mobile service. And now, apparently, they’re all arguing over who launched 5G first.

You can read the details here, but in essence, both Verizon and the South Korean cellcos (the latter aided by the government) pushed up their scheduled launch dates to beat each other to the wire, and now there’s a lot of nitpicking over time zones and whether SK Telecom’s launch even counts since their first subscribers were big-name celebrities and regular consumers had to wait two days later to sign up, etc and so on and things of that nature generally.

My first thought was: “Oh, who gives a f***?”

Having taken the weekend to give it some more thought, I’ve decided that I was right the first time.

Let’s start with the fact that last week’s 5G launches technically weren’t even the first for either country. Verizon launched its 5G service in October (although it was actually a proprietary form of 5G that was only for home broadband services). AT&T launched its 5G network in December, as did ST Telecom, KT and LG Uplus – all of them offering hotspot routers instead of mobile phones.

Which is why it’s worth noting that last week’s launches were more about 5G devices than the networks themselves. SK Telecom’s service offers the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, while Verizon is offering the Lenovo-made Moto Z3, which requires a 5G clip-on “mod” to use a 5G network.

But does it really matter which operator got there first?

Who’s on first?

Reuters quotes a spokesperson from AT&T (who is claiming its December 5G launch beats Verizon and SK Telcom by a mile, so they should both shut up) saying that “being first is important in our industry.”

First of all, it’s hard to take AT&T seriously on this point when they’ve spent the last year trying to be first in 5G by passing off its 4G upgrades as 5G with its highly misleading ‘5G Evolution’ brand.

And second, being first in anything in this industry has only ever mattered in terms of marketing slides to throw in the face of your competitors at industry conferences. It sounds good in the annual report and gives the board members something to brag about.

In the case of 5G specifically, the argument for 5G leadership is that trillions of investment dollars are at stake here – IHS Markit estimates 5G will generate some $12.3 trillion in annual revenue across a broad range of industries by 2035. Other analyst firms have offered similar projections.

Those forecasts might be accurate, but I don’t buy the argument that being first with 5G will get your market a bigger share of that pie, or that any country that beats you to 5G will get all the investment benefits of 5G at your expense. This is not a zero-sum winner-takes-all game. Every country that adopts 5G has the potential to harvest the economic benefits – how much will depend on their current economic status, regulatory policies, investment policies, tax policies, political stability, education, skillsets, and a range of other factors. It won’t depend on who launched 5G first – especially when the time gap between launches is less than one hour.

Meanwhile, Reuters also quotes a South Korean Ministry of Science official: “It is a pretty big deal for every mobile carrier who can be called the world’s first.”

Well, no it isn’t. Okay, maybe to the carrier in question, it is. But for most of my career, I’ve been getting press releases weekly (or daily when MWC or some other major industry event is in session) from operators and suppliers who claim that what they’re announcing is a world first – provided you qualify it carefully enough. And some world-firsts are completely pointless. Remember last year when Ooredoo, STC and Etisalat launched 5G in their respective markets – despite the fact that there was literally no device anyone could buy to actually use it? Whoop de doo.

Take it from me – world-firsts are a dime a dozen.

What’s truly bizarre is that this row isn’t happening between, say, Verizon and AT&T, or between SK Telecom and KT – which would still be silly, but it would at least be the traditional spiking of the ball in the face of a commercial rival. (Ironically, South Korea’s regulator has been coordinating with SK Telcom, KT and LG Uplus to have simultaneous launch dates to avoid exactly that.)

But why on earth would any operator care about whether their 5G service was launched earlier than a cellco in a completely separate market thousands of miles away? Political pressure? Shameless PR tactic? FOMO? We may never know.

For now, let’s just call it what it is: 5G madness. We can only hope it’s of the usual temporary kind – eventually reality will set in in the next few years, rollouts will start to ramp up and the promise of 5G will materialize in a more realistic (and perhaps even profitable) form.

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