5G today: disruptive world-changer or glorified WiMax?

5G verizon
Is this the 5G future we were promised? [Image credit: Verizon]

As you may have noticed, it’s 5G Hype Week, thanks to two industry-related events: MWC Americas in Los Angeles, and the 3GPP Plenary meeting in Australia’s Gold Coast. The former has spurred Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile to make as much noise about 5G as possible, while the latter has spurred Telstra to do likewise. The basic message is the same: 5G is here, we’re rolling it out first and it will transform the world just like we always said it would.

In Australia, Telstra has been switching on 5G-ready sites here and there this month. Earlier this week, CEO Andrew Penn penned (sorry) a lengthy blog post explaining how 5G is real and here and today, and how the short answer to the question “Will 5G change the world?” is “absolutely yes”.

In the US, the GSMA helpfully produced two reports this week at MWC Americas to back that up, predicting that North America’s mobile ecosystem will generate $1.1 trillion in economic value by 2022 thanks to 5G, and that the combination of 5G, AI and IoT technologies “will change the world, intelligently connecting everyone and everything to a better future”.

Well, you know. Glory be.

Meanwhile operators are tripping over each other trying to be the first on the block to cash in on that hype bandwagon and launch 5G now – so much so that CCS Insights has had to upgrade its 5G uptake forecast, since cellcos will be launching services much sooner than initially thought (particularly in China).

Verizon looks set to be the winner of the #MeFirst5G slugfest in the US with the announced launch of its 5G Home service on October 1. It will be available only in select bits of Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Sacramento. But it’s still 5G, and first is first, so suck it losers.

This is not that

And here is where they tend to lose me, because 5G Home is not world-changing Big Vision 5G as described above. It’s not even close, really. It’s a fixed-wireless access service marketed as a cord-cutting play for people who are sick of dealing with Comcast’s crap. It’s 300-Mbps download speeds for home users – and that’s all it is.

Put dirt simple, it’s WiMax with faster speeds, a better ecosystem and a future. Whoop-de-doo.

The business case for it isn’t really all that certain – at least not for everyone. AT&T was initially bullish on fixed wireless 5G, but a few months ago CFO John Stephens said on a conference call that “we’re not as excited about the business case” for fixed wireless, mainly because it requires fiber backhaul fairly close to the residence, and if you already have fiber that close (as AT&T does in the markets where it’s launching 5G first), it’s arguably just as cost-effective to bring the fiber all the way to the home.

According to EDN, even Verizon executives have been downplaying 5G fixed wireless in conference calls, seeing it more as something they can do with 5G while they’re waiting for compatible mobile devices to hit the street.

Mind you, that’s not a bad reason to deploy 5G now, and there are actually good reasons for doing so. Like 4G before it, 5G does offer vastly improved spectral and operational efficiencies. And of course any improvement in capacity and data speeds are always welcome – indeed, for all of Telstra’s lyrical waxing over remote robot telesurgery, Andrew Penn states clearly that the main reason for rushing forward on 5G is simple: data demand is surging rapidly to levels that 4G simply can’t handle.

So, since 5G will be an incremental (and inevitable) upgrade anyway, there’s no harm in getting a head start, provided you have the budget, the cashflow and the internal flexibility to figure out the business case as you go along.

But it ain’t exactly world changing – not right now. It’s certainly not the Big Vision 5G that operators and vendors go on about. Sure, current deployments will lay the foundation for Big Vision 5G, but realizing that vision is still years away, if only because it’s going to take that long for just about every part of the 5G ecosystem (to include autonomous cars, smart factories etc) to reach critical mass. Even by CCS Insight’s upgraded numbers, 5G will only account for around 20% of mobile connections by 2025.

So maybe let’s lay off the #MeFirst5G hype about how World-Changing Big Vision 5G has arrived, because the 5G being rolled out now is not that 5G. It’s a glorified network upgrade being leveraged for maximum marketing points to impress the shareholders.

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John C. Tanner
About John C. Tanner 406 Articles
John Tanner has been covering the Asia-Pacific telecoms industry since 1996. He has two degrees in telecommunications, and worked for six years in the US radio industry in various technical and advisory capacities, covering radio and satellite equipment maintenance, studio networking, news writing and production, the latter of which earned him several regional and national awards.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks John
    A lot of good points here.
    It is important to recognise the differences between NSA (Non Stand Alone) 5G which is basically a capacity enhancer for 4G networks and true SA (Stand Alone) 5G which is a game changer for society.
    If 5G was just about smartphones (as the majority of operators in the #MeFirst5G slugfest, as you so aptly call it, seem to think it is and are just trying to getting a headstart on capacity enhancements) then why 5G.
    I disagree that 5G offers spectrum efficiencies over 4G. It is marginal. If it were just about smartphones then more spectrum in 4G with more carriers to aggregate would suffice. 5G’s Massive MIMO, small cells and other enhancements can also be applied to 4G.
    4G is built on multiple 20MHz channels. Most 5G trials are 200Mhz bandwidth @ 3.5Ghz and 800MHz bandwidth @ 28 GHz. Thats a massive increase in spectrum.
    Real 5G only comes in when governments and regulators really engage with operators to develop the truly smart city with a ubiquitous connectivity fabric of ultra reliable, low latency 5G that caters for billions if not trillions of IoT connected devices.
    Network slicing in SA 5G is for private mission critical networks like emergency services and other private network or QoS based applications like connected cars.
    Our statistics based estimates show that if we can reduce the avoidable accidents caused by cars jumping lights and cornering into civil works at night by connecting cars with assisted driving….by just 50%, we can save two hospitals in Hong Kong.
    This infrastructure build requires tons of low, medium and high band spectrum; access to infrastructure and street furniture, lamposts and the like…..and the commitment of everyone, not just the “smartphone” mobile operator, to build such a massive new infrastructure that will change society.
    Your last paragraph says it all!
    Thanks
    PAUL

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