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The Disappointment of 5G

Karl Bode recently wrote an excellent article highlighting the overhyping of wireless technologies. He’s right, and for the last twenty years, we’ve been told that a world-changing wireless technology is coming soon, but none ever materialized. No wireless technology has been a bigger flop than 5G when comparing the hype to the eventual reality.

The hype for 5G was amazingly over-the-top. The wireless carriers and vendors blitzed the country in a coordinated effort to paint 5G as the solution that would bring broadband everywhere. 5G was going to bring us self-driving cars. 5G would enable doctors to perform surgery remotely from across the country. 5G was going to fuel an explosion of smart factories that would bring complex manufacturing back to the U.S. And 5G was going to use millimeter waves to bring us gigabit-speed broadband everywhere, eliminating the need for investing in expensive fiber networks.

The hype fired up the general public, which bought into the 5G promises, but the public wasn’t the real audience of the hype. The cellular carriers did a non-stop blitz on federal officials, getting them to buy into the amazing wireless future. The cellular companies launched gimmick networks in downtowns to deliver gigabit cellular speeds using millimeter-wave spectrum as a way to sell the 5G vision. It’s clear in retrospect that the rhetoric and gimmicks were aimed at getting the FCC to release more mid-range spectrum for cellular usage – and it worked. There was pressure on the FCC to move more quickly with proceedings that were examining spectrum availability. The wireless carriers even talked the FCC into allowing cellular carriers to poach free WiFi spectrum in cities. The hype worked so well on elected officials that there was a serious discussion about the U.S. buying one of the big wireless vendors like Nokia or Ericsson so that the U.S. wouldn’t lose the 5G war with China.

The main problem with all of this hype is that the rhetoric didn’t match the specifications for 5G that were adopted by international standards bodies. The 5G specifications included a few key goals: get cellular speeds over 100 Mbps, allow for more simultaneous users at a given cell site, allow a cellphone to use two different spectrum bands at the same time, and allow a user to connect to more than one cell site if the demand needed it. The primary purpose of the 5G spec was to eliminate cell site congestion in places where there are a lot of people trying to simultaneously use the cellular network. Nothing in the 5G specification is earth-shattering. The specification, as a whole, seemed like the natural evolution of cellular to better accommodate a world where everybody has a cell phone.

I wrote several blogs during the height of the 5G hype where I was puzzled by the claims that 5G would bring about a broadband revolution because I couldn’t see those claims backed up by the technical capabilities of 5G. I also wrote several blogs asking about the business case for 5G because I couldn’t find one. We will likely never build a dense cellular network along the millions of miles of roads to support self-driving cars. The biggest business use of 5G touted by the carriers was to get people to buy subscriptions to use 5G to support the smart devices in our homes – but people will never buy a subscription to do what WiFi can do for free.

There is still not a good business case that can drive the new revenues needed to justify spending a lot of money on 5G. Because of this, most of the 5G specification has not been implemented. How many people are willing to pay extra for the ability to connect a cellphone to two cell towers simultaneously?

Instead of 5G that follows the specifications, we’ve gotten more marketing hype where the cellular carriers have labeled the new spectrum from the FCC as 5G. There is almost none of the 5G specification in this product, and the product labeled as 5G still uses 4G LTE technology. The introduction of the new spectrum has relieved the pressure on overloaded cell sites, and we’ve seen cellular speeds rise significantly. But that faster speed is wasted on most cellular customers who don’t do anything more data-intensive than watch video.

It was interesting to see how the rhetoric died down once the cellular carriers got access to more spectrum. The big winner from the marketing hype has been the handset manufacturers, which have convinced customers that they must have 5G phones – without really telling them why. Cellular customers are generally pleased that speeds have increased since this means stronger coverage indoors and in outdoor dead spots. But surveys have shown that only a minuscule percentage of people are willing to pay more for faster cellular speeds.

The most ludicrous thing about the 5G story is that the industry is now hyping 6G. This new marketing hoax is focusing on some of the mid-range spectrum that was originally touted as being part of the 5G war – but the marketers rightfully assume that most customers won’t understand or care about the facts. It seems like the industry has embarked on subdividing what was originally considered as 5G spectrum into small chunks so that the carriers roll out subsequent generations of 6G, 7G, and 8G – all of which were supposedly part of the original 5G revolution. I have no doubt that the public will buy into the hype and want 6G phones when they hit the market, but I also know that none of them will see any difference in performance. The formula seems simple – announce a new G generation every eighteen months and sell a lot of new handsets.

One reply on “The Disappointment of 5G”

Same thing I always say about 5g: the industry has a growth problem.

Once more or less everyone has a cell subscription, there needs to be innovation that provides new value that people are willing to pay for to maintain growth. Cell companies have the same problem the telcos have always had: deep lack of innovation.

Faster speed has a limit to how much value it provides, particularly when the actual speed of a networked application involves a whole lot more components than just the last 100′ or distance to the cell tower. And, even at that, you need applications that are so valuable at higher speed that people are willing to pay for the extra speed. And, for cell companies, it needs to be something that is super valuable while moving around.

The cell industry is the mobile version of dumb pipes, just like the cable and fiber industries are the fixed versions of dumb pipes and all this hoo hah is either trying to crawl out of that hole or paper over it so that we and their investors don’t notice. They’re all desperate to avoid a race to the bottom competition on price, which they’ve structurally avoided via semi-monopolistic strategies.

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