It’s 2020, so where is the 5G we were promised?

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It is 2020 and 5G has not arrived en mass. Devices are few and pundits in the consumer world are wondering where the mind-blowing speed is. If you ask US operators, they’ll tell you 5G is here, but this really isn’t about speed or air interfaces. CIO keynotes have reminded us repeatedly for several years that the 5G vision is about robust B2B applications, MEC, virtualization and network-as-a-service.

The 5G-powered 4th industrial revolution was supposed to arrive in 2020. But operators now admit, at least indirectly, that it won’t. The evidence is found in the disparity between what operator CIOs continue to pitch in industry keynotes and what their sales teams are telling their resale channel partners.

The C-level vision pitch

Compare Verizon CIO Shankar Arumugavelu’s 5G vision keynote, as given in November at TM Forum’s Digital Transformation Asia, side by side with Verizon’s channel sales kickoff, provided to resale partners in December. In fairness, Verizon is not the only operator trying to save some face over the 5G shortfall, but it provides a useful example.

Arumugavelu’s pitch is articulate and not dissimilar from that offered in other C-level keynotes. He explains that 5G, “is a game changer” that is “designed for massive connectivity and mobility.” It will support handoffs at 500kmph, connect 1 million devices per square kilometer, deliver end to end latency of less than 5 milliseconds and enable network slice creation in under 90 minutes, as compared to 2 weeks or more with 4G.

Arumugavelu describes how multiaccess edge compute (MEC) in the 5G world will enable network-as-a-service built on an intelligent edge network. The jargon boils down to a promise that says 5G’s power is less about the air interface than it is about a dynamic, ultra-high capacity network that is virtualized end to end and in which cloud-based compute is accessible right at the network edge, thus enabling the low latency needed to run sophisticated applications super-fast.

These applications, he and others say, will include real time cloud gaming; AR and VR; 8k streaming; autonomous vehicles and drones; smart cities; blends of robotics, 3D printing, AI and IIoT; massive sensorization; smart retail; and even remote surgery and space exploration. We have all heard these examples and been a little less excited by them each year.

Reality on the street

Verizon deserves credit for reorganizing to become more B2B focused; to ensure B2B teams are on equal footing with consumer organizations; and to empower B2B reseller channels to drive growth. This is real progress that is an important part of making the B2B-centric 5G vision real.

The folks staffing Verizon’s 2020 channel sales kickoff were proud to share this “Verizon 2.0” model. They were perhaps less excited, yet willing, to admit that 5G, in the grander sense, isn’t quite ready for prime time. The reasons given include limited availability of 5G devices and infrastructure as well as slow progress of private-public partnerships.

This sounds a little bit like blaming vendors, politicians and municipal bureaucracy. The charges may be fair, but the result is the same: the 5G train is running late.

Where the full 5G vision falls short is with MEC and associated vertical applications which will not be widely available until 2021. Though Verizon announced a MEC partnership with AWS in early December, offering the “first ever MEC computing capability,” but this is a pilot program and is not yet on offer for mainstream consumption. 

What 5G amounts to today seems to be a means to replace fiber connections with something that doesn’t need wires grouped under the same name as some really cool use cases that aren’t fully baked yet but should be available soon-ish.

Verizon can claim that it has 5G operating in 30 US cities today and thus has met its 2020 launch target. But while 5G home broadband is being advertised aggressively in Chicago, for example, it is not yet fully available in some of downtown Chicago’s most sought after neighborhoods. When pressed, Verizon’s team shared that more 5G products will become available in the spring of 2020. The initial product is a connectivity device designed to replace the network facing side of a broadband modem, but without its own WiFi router, which will come a little later. Resellers will be able to offer 5G fixed wireless services closer to midsummer.

Does telecom need to play “Fake it ‘til you Make it?”

If this is a problem, it’s a self-inflicted one; the hype just got too far ahead, and we all knew it. Now, the communications effort aims to keep the hype alive and to excite prospective buyers with cool demos and pilot programs. 5G products and services will come to market when ready. And maybe that’s a good thing.

New, complex tech takes time to get right. It’s better if 5G runs late but is done well; no one wants to rush all this new, complex tech into the market only to have it explode on the launch pad. Perhaps the lesson here is that telecom isn’t like consumer electronics or social media apps. It’s far more capital- and engineering-intensive. While the entire industry seems to be striving to become more digital, it doesn’t really need to act like immature digital start-ups that believe they have no choice but to fake it until they make it.

Ed Finegold is an author, entrepreneur and former corporate communications director who has lived and nearly died by the digital sword. He now delivers digital content for private clients.

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