Amid all the chatter about how “5G has arrived” and the constant barrage of news bytes that 5G will change the world and has hit new data speeds, yada, yada, yada, comes a reality check from an unlikely media source in the computer world – PCMag (PCRag, as I like to call it).
PCMag is a consumer pub that spends more time doing happy camper surveys between ads about curing dementia and toenail fungus. It likes to talk about things such as who is the fastest internet provider, tips and tricks on Windows optimization, kicking your kids off of Wi-Fi, and finding hidden secrets of apps like Tic Toc and Facebook, rather than providing serious discussions about wireless technology. Every once in a while, it does seem to hit a 5G nail on the head. In this case, PCMag commented on a Finnish report that noted reliable and somewhat pervasive 5G will not arrive before 2027.
I have been hard on the industry hype that claims any real presence of 5G. Sure, deployment and coverage of 5G will become increasingly visible in what I like to call islands, as the rollout proceeds. However, these islands will only offer limited footprints for some time to come. But, as the PCMag journalist pointed out, being able to use 5G for your primary communications network, consistently, is years away.
How one sees 5G is subjective and depends upon a number of factors, just like how one sees quantum computing (QC). Yes, we have a couple of — if one stretches the envelope — quantum computers. They are housed in a sterile environment kept at zero degrees Kelvin. They are highly susceptible to movement, vibration, even looing at it with an evil eye, and must be kept in extremely stable environments. Under these conditions, they do function as quantum computers. In reality, depending upon with whom one speaks, opinions vary from “yes, we have” to “practical quantum computing” is likely a couple of decades off (Gartner, expes at least 10 more years of hype, according to a recent report). However, the unqualified answer to that question is no, we do not have real QC now.
This kind of pushing the envelope is commonplace. Not just with QC, but also with platforms such as wireless, autonomous vehicles and smart X, as well as technologies such as dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) virtualization, software-defined networking (SDN) and O-RAN. In all of these cases, we can say it has arrived, but as well, in all of these cases, the technology or platform is nascent.
Porting that to 5G, if we had listened to the hypsters, we have had 5G since 2019. Do you remember AT&T’s attempt to sell 5G by issuing phone updates that changed the 4G icon to 5GE? Over the last year or so, we have deployed 5G, but only as non-standalone (NSA).
However, these deployments are isolated islands of 5G, with minimal performance (read: performance is not much better than 4G). Does that mean we have 5G? Or does having 5G mean we have the ubiquitous 5G deployments and performance hitting the hype that has been levied these past couple of years? Add to that the fact that only 4 percent of respondents in a Morgan Stanley report said they would switch carriers to access new technologies like 5G. To me, this does not sound like we have 5G.
Another set of financials released by Elisa, a wireless carrier in Finland, on the operator’s 5G launch said it made $3.50 per month per customer from 5G. However, the details are sketchy, and the report does not break down that number further.
Most carriers, globally, are calling 5G a success and throwing out figures and hype that make it sound like 5G is on a fast track. Perhaps that is true in countries like Korea and China, but in the western hemisphere, carriers are simply exaggerating what the numbers really mean. And the hype continues.
Although it is old news now, recall when T-Mo got caught exaggerating claims of 5G being nationwide. Also, remember the National Advertising Division of BBB National Programs examined some of T-Mobile’s claims about having the best 5G network and found that they were potentially misleading to customers.
T-Mo does have a good dispersion of 5G at the lower frequencies they use. However, the benefits of 5G are not as spectacular in lower frequencies as they are at frequencies with more available bandwidth (above 6 GHz). Hence, while T-Mo may cover 200 million people, that coverage is qualified with location — not everywhere or all the time — and performance. Typically, T-Mo’s 5G at these frequencies only comes in at just over 100 Mbps. Although that is a two-to-three-times improvement over typical 4G data speeds (~35 Mbps), it is not nearly the super-speeds of the hype — although that may change somewhat when they bring the midband spectrum they acquired from the merger with Sprint online.
Other carriers, such as AT&T and Verizon, are working at mmWave frequencies. These do deliver significantly faster speeds. However, we are all aware of the propagation and penetration shortcomings of mmWave in large-area coverage and building penetration. Therefore, they are more working with siloed deployments in dense, high-traffic areas in cities, stadiums and, soon, airports, campuses and other similar footprint areas. Where these limited mmWave networks are deployed, the speeds are impressive — anywhere from 600 Mbps to 1.5 Gbps in the most stellar installations. Yet, in other than a few shining examples, the hype still continues.
Okay, circling back to the issue of do we or do we not have 5G — IMHO, as with QC, the unqualified answer is no, and the qualified answer is yes, but it is still nascent. I tend to agree that it will be years before we can say we have a 5G network that meets the expected performance of the 3GPP specs and does so with a large enough global footprint so much of the time the user has access to it.
The best perspective comes from an observation that emerged from the recent Brooklyn 6G Summit. The overall consensus was that 5G has a long way to go, with much that needs to be learned and applied in 5G, before we tackle 6G. That knowledge base will be what shapes the future beyond 5G (B5G), years from now.
Ernest Worthman is an executive editor with AGL Media Group.