Telstra’s 5G-‘enabled’ hotspots: a potential cautionary tale

5G hotspots
Image credit: Ivan Marc / Shutterstock.com

Telstra has activated what it says is the world’s first 5G-enabled Wi-Fi hotspots – the key word being ‘enabled’. They’re actually normal hotspots using 5G as the backhaul link – the question is whether users will understand the difference (or care), and whether having 5G behind the access point makes a real difference in the user experience.

The 5G-enabled hotspots are located in Australia’s Gold Coast, where Telstra has set up its 5G Innovation Centre to showcase 5G technology and apps. The hotspots are free of charge and anyone can use them,

Mike Wright, Telstra’s group managing director of networks, said the 5G backhaul links can deliver download speeds of more than 3 Gbps, “which is capable of supporting around 1,000 HD movies being streamed simultaneously.”

Consequently, Telstra has imposed a download limit of 10 GB per day per device.

Wright said the decision to use Wi-Fi hotspots to demo 5G is simply because it’s the only way to get people to experience 5G in real world conditions using existing devices.

“There are no 5G compatible commercial smartphones or tablets available today. By connecting 5G backhaul and infrastructure in the Southport Exchange to a standard Wi-Fi access point, then people can use the technology on their existing device,” he said.

Whether users notice the difference remains to be seen – depending on what Wi-Fi standard their devices support, the link speed between the device and the access point could be anywhere from 54 Mbps to 3.4 Gbps. And that’s the theoretical peak speed – the actual speed depends on a number of factors, including distance from the access point and how many devices are using it. Even assuming the best-case scenario, the experience may not be any different from using Wi-Fi backed by a fiber link.

Telstra does point this out (at the bottom of its press release), and presumably does so in the promotional material for the hotspots. If nothing else, it’s a chance for Telstra to test the performance of the 5G backhaul link, Wright says: “By using multiple hotspots with potentially hundreds of smartphone users served through a single 5G device we are able to get closer to demonstrating 5G in a real-world environment.”

Even so, Telstra will have to tread carefully to make sure it doesn’t oversell the hotspots as actual 5G. Just ask AT&T, who took a beating in the press and social media last year over its launch of “5G Evolution” – which wasn’t actual 5G but in fact LTE upgrades that prepped the base stations for eventual 5G rollouts. AT&T was accused of fudging the difference in order to look like it was the first operator on the block to launch 5G.

For operators facing saturated markets, the temptation to jump the gun on promoting the next “G” is often reasonably high. Some of you may remember when some cellcos rolled out HSPA+ and tried to brand it as 4G, for example. 5G is no different in that regard – especially with the hype machine in high gear now that there’s a standard behind it.

A number of vendors at this year’s Mobile World Congress arguably added fuel to the hype fire with claims that 5G is here and 5G is now – even though much of the actual equipment launched at the show won’t be commercially available until much later this year. The 5G that is ‘here” and ‘now’ is Non-Standalone 5G NR, which is for all intents and purposes a radio upgrade for LTE – which is why the initial use case for 5G is “enhanced mobile broadband” (in other words, it’s 4G but faster, more efficient and more flexible).

All of which is fine and worthwhile – but it’s not exactly the 5G utopia (ubiquitous 10-Gbps connections for every ‘thing’, 1-ms latency, self-driving cars, 8K VR, etc) that’s been promised in the marketing materials. That 5G is still a ways off from commercialization, and rollouts are further off still for most markets. The early rollouts are also expected to be quite limited in usage. In the US, 5G will initially be a fixed-wireless play. Earlier this month, KT announced that it will launch mobile 5G services in March 2019 – but it will be strictly B2B, with planned services including smart factories and HD digital signage on trains.

Here’s some additional perspective: this week, Strategy Analytics released its latest forecast that estimates we will see 9 billion user-linked subscriptions to wireless services by 2023 (up from 7.7 billion right now). Of that, close to 600 million will be 5G subscriptions (which doesn’t include fixed wireless and industrial IoT connections). Yes, 600 million is a big number, but 9 billion is way bigger.

Here are those numbers in chart form.

5G 2023
Credit: Strategy Analytics

That little orange block in the top right hand corner? That’s all the people who will probably be using 5G in 2023. Which is five years from now.

None of this is to pick on Telstra, who has invested a lot in its mobile network to make sure it’s able to capitalize on 5G as soon as possible. And showcases are fine in terms of educating the public on what 5G can do (and ideally is worth paying extra for, or at least adds more value). But cellcos ought to tread with caution when promoting 5G and find a way to balance the promise with the reality. Overpromising and underdelivering isn’t exactly in the spirit of customer-centricity and superior user experience.

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