Telling the Truth About 5G

I still run across articles that extol the supposed wonders of 5G. The most recent, published in Gizmodo asks “How 5G Could Replace Your Home Broadband Connection”. I was surprised to see an article like this in a tech-oriented site because the article gets most of the facts wrong about 5G – facts that are not hard to verify.

This article talks about 5G having “faster download speeds, faster upload speeds, more bandwidth, and lower latency” than landline broadband. The author talks about having gigabit speeds on 5G. The article is clearly talking about 5G cellular technology. The author talks about sticking a SIM card in a router and using this fast 5G instead of wired broadband. The article hints that 5G may be the savior for poor rural broadband. This all sounds like it came directly from the sales pitch that the big cellular carriers have been making to politicians for the last five years – 5G will transform the world.

The article talks about an AT&T cellular hotspot product that can handle data speeds up to 1 gigabit. The article mentions the T-Mobile Home Internet product and also mentions speeds up to 1 gigabit. Those two carriers mention the word gigabit in their advertising, but the author fails to understand that in urban areas these products might deliver speeds at something under 100 Mbps, and in rural America, where the products are aimed to serve, speeds are likely going to be south of 20 Mbps.

Finally, the article swallows the industry rhetoric and gives the label of 5G to the Verizon Home product – which is fiber-to-the-curb. The key word in that technology description is fiber – Verizon builds a fiber just outside of the home for this to work. This product is not even a distant cousin of cellular data.

And that’s where this author and a large number of other articles miss the boat about 5G. 5G is a cellular technology. Its sole purpose of 5G is to make cell sites perform better. Today there is no 5G anywhere on the planet because the 5G features that will make cell sites perform better have not yet been incorporated into cell sites or into phones. We can expect to start seeing these features over the next 3-4 years at cell sites, and a few years longer as future generations of cellphones can use the new features.

The author has fallen for the carrier hype that 5G will be blazingly fast. It will not be fast in the vast majority of circumstances. The 5G specifications call for cell towers to reliably deliver 100 Mbps cellular data to big numbers of cellphones or devices. The industry vendors might find a way to outperform that goal – but there is no wireless engineer anywhere thinking we’ll be delivering gigabit speeds to cellphones using 5G.

The biggest trap the author fell into is buying into the carrier rhetoric about gigabit speeds. The carriers have wireless products with fast broadband using millimeter-wave spectrum. The first was mentioned above, which is Verizon’s Home product. The second comes from deployment of millimeter-wave hot spots in downtown areas. These hotspots are the equivalent of putting a faster hotspot like the ones used at a Starbucks on a pole and beaming broadband to anybody within 500 feet.

Both of these applications are fast. Both use millimeter-wave spectrum. But both require a customer to be within close proximity to a fiber. Most importantly, these technologies are not 5G. They don’t currently use and will never use any of the 5G technology improvements that will make cellular phones perform better. I’m sometimes tempted to post an entire blog that, reminiscent of Jack Torrence in The Shining, types over and over, “Millimeter-wave spectrum is not 5G. Millimeter-wave spectrum is not 5G”.

I occasionally reply to one of these articles, and this one is particularly egregious because such articles magnify the false stories that the carriers have been trying to sell to the public, which is that 5G is an amazing technology that will transform the world – any day now, but not quite today. Such articles keep telling people to hold out for a technology that isn’t coming. Yes, there will be rural 5G hotspot products for households. But let’s please tell the truth – I’ll be surprised if the average rural home ever reaches 50 Mbps on the technology.

5 thoughts on “Telling the Truth About 5G

  1. The other group that have/will fall for this are those bodies responsible for grants, broadband definition, mapping, legislators, etc.

  2. Thank you for continuing to clarify the current capabilities (or lack thereof) of 5G. I think my wife is getting tired of me talking back to the Verizon, ATT, and T-Mobile commercials on television touting their “nationwide” 5G capabilities, “That’s a lie!”

    Marketers have taken poetic license with their product claims since the invention of fire, but I tend to side with Chris’ comment that the real danger comes not from consumers buying into the hype, but our regulatory bodies doing so.

  3. Thanks, as always, for the truth.

    I feel like some significant amount of what I read about 5g likely fits in the category of “placed stories” which are mostly content provided by somebody’s marketing department that authors (I won’t call them journalists) punch up to hit a deadline. When you see several of them appear at the same time with highly overlapping content it’s usually a campaign.

    Telcos have a solution in search of a problem. Saturated market, overloaded cell towers are *their* problem. Almost nobody has a problem that needs mobility and high speed data. Almost everyone they’re pitching to has something that could be solved with fiber and Wifi-6.

    Where the public starts paying for this mess is where it gets really tragic. Now that the FCC might not be completely involved in Agit Pai regulatory capture, maybe we can avoid some of that.

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