The 5G Experience in 2020

The cellular carriers are in full 5G marketing mode. If you believe the TV commercials, you’d now think that the country is blanketed by 5G, as each cellular carrier claims a bigger coverage area than their competitors. However, almost all of their claims are marketing hype. What’s the reality of 5G coverage in 2020?

What does it mean when the carriers claim wide coverage of 5G? In 2020 there will be no cellular deployment that can be legitimately called 5G. Full 5G will not arrive until the carriers have implemented the bulk of the new features described in the 5G specifications. For now, none of the important features of 5G have been developed and introduced into the market. 5G deployment will come in stages as each of the 5G features reaches markets – the same thing that happened to 4G. For now, all of the major 5G improvements are still under development in the labs.

Then what are the carriers calling 5G? Most of what is being called 5G is the introduction of new bands of spectrum. New spectrum does not equal 5G – the 5G experience only comes with 5G features. Existing cellphones cannot receive the new spectrum bands, and so the carriers are selling new phones that can receive the new spectrum and labeling that as 5G.

What does the new spectrum mean for cellular performance? At first, anybody lucky enough to grab new spectrum will likely have a great experience. This will mostly be because almost nobody else is using the spectrum at a given cell site. We will see some early claims of blazingly fast speeds that will fade away over time. As more phones can use the new spectrum, the performance will drop back to normal 4G speeds – and maybe even a little slower. Much of the first wave of spectrum being released is in lower frequency bands such as 600 MHz for T-Mobile and 850 MHz for AT&T. These lower frequency bands don’t carry as much data as higher frequencies, and in the long-run these lower frequencies will be used to bolster voice traffic.

Why are the carriers claiming widespread 5G? I can only guess that carriers have gotten so caught up in 5G hype that they feel compelled to show something new to the market. The carriers don’t like to talk about it, but their 4G networks are in big trouble in urban areas. The amount of cellular data being used by customers is doubling every two years. You don’t have to be a network engineer to understand that continuous doubling of traffic can quickly swamp any network and degrade performance. Most of the carrier activity in 2020 is aimed at propping up the 4G networks until 5G is a mature technology.

When will we see 5G features? From what I read in the IEEE forums, most of the 5G features are 2 – 5 years away. The same thing happened with 4G and it took most of a decade to see 4G fully implemented – in fact, the first US cell site fully meeting the 4G standards was not activated until late 2018. Over time we’ll see a new 5G features implemented as they are released from labs to field. New features will only be available to those that have phones that can use them, so there will be a 2 to 3-year lag until there are enough phones in the market capable of using a given new feature. This means every 5G phone will be out of date as soon as a new 5G feature is released.

What about millimeter wave spectrum – is that 5G? No, it’s just another new frequency band. The characteristics of millimeter wave spectrum are so different from traditional cellular frequencies that it’s even hard to call this a cellular frequency. The frequency is 10-30 times faster than traditional cellular frequency. It only travels short distances, mostly under 1,000 feet from a cell site. It needs line-of-sight and can be easily blocked by any impediment in the environment. It’s not going to pass from outdoor transmitters into buildings. It’s easier to understand millimeter wave spectrum if you think of it as a broadband hotspot that is mounted outside, and which can be received by special phones designed to use the frequency.

Does all of this mean a better cellular experience in 2020? It will for some people. Those who buy new phones that can receive the new frequency bands, and who live or work within two miles of an upgraded cell site will likely see improved performance – no drastically so, but a little better. Anybody who wants blazing data speeds on a cellphone and who lives or works in the urban city centers might be able to get outdoor broadband from millimeter wave hotspots. The rest of us are going to see a gradual degradation of our 4G experience as existing cell sites grow busier. This means more dropped calls, fewer bars. Until the cellular carriers have deployed a lot of small sites and started to implement the 5G features our cellular experience is likely to get worse before it gets better.

Finally, what about rural America in 2020? It’s going to still be more likely for a rural caller to snag a 3G connection than a 5G one using the new frequencies. The FCC figured out last year that the cellular carriers had greatly exaggerated their rural 4G coverage areas – something that is not news to rural residents. Rural cell sites aren’t under the same stress as urban ones due to fewer customers trying to use a given cell site, so calling should remain the same this year. There is hope over the next 2-4 years to see money from the FCC’s 5G Fund bring better 4G coverage to rural areas. True 5G features will make little noticeable difference in rural America for many years to come.