Lies, Damned Lies and 5G

4g-antennaI’m not sure that there is a major industry that lies more to its customers than the cellular industry. The whole industry has spent the last decade touting its 4G LTE networks, when in fact the industry is just now installing the first cell sites that actually meet the 4G standard.

And now we are starting this cycle all over again with the industry buzz about how 5G is right around the corner. But it isn’t. And I will take bets that within the next year or so one of the cellular companies is going to tell their customers they now have a 5G network.

Every once in a while somebody in the industry tells a little bit of the truth. At a Qualcomm summit recently in Hong Kong, Roger Gurnani, the EVP and chief information and technology architect at Verizon said that 5G is not a replacement for 4G and that LTE will be around for many years. And he is right, because it’s going to be at least ten years until a customer anywhere is going to be able use a cellphone that meets the full 5G standard. But there is no way that anybody at one of the cellular companies is ever going to say that.

The 4G standard was established around 2008 and we are just now seeing US cell sites that are implementing what they are labeling as LTE-Advanced, which is the first deployment that meets the full 4G standard. I say ‘about 2008’ because the effort to create the new 4G standard took two different paths with WIMAX and LTE, with different timelines. The standards for 5G are still under development and probably aren’t going to be finalized until late 2019.

How have the cellular companies been able to claim 4G all these years with a straight face (and without getting shut down by the Federal Trade Commission or hit with class action lawsuits)? The answer lies in the fact that the specifications for a standard like 4G or 5G contains a lot of different components. To use a simple analogy, if there are ten technology improvements needed to migrate from 3G to 4G, then the cellular companies started touting they had 4G after only one or two of the upgrades. But until all of the improvements have been implemented a customer cannot receive the actual promised benefits of the 4G standard.

A lot of this has to do with marketing hype. Think back to a decade ago when there was an arms race to be the first cellular company to have 4G. All the cellular commercials made 4G claims and we were bombarded by maps showing who had the best 4G coverage. But these claims were made by the marketing folks at the wireless companies and the fact is that all of those maps were a lie and nobody had 4G. Even now most people can’t get full 4G.

The cellular companies are also egged on by the cellular vendors. Right now that is all that the companies that make wireless equipment want to talk about – how they will be the first to support 5G. And so if you go to an industry forum right now that is all you will hear. I’ve noticed numerous 5G summits being announced around the world, mostly led by vendors, to talk about the next generation of cellphones for which the standards are not even finished.

I see several problems with the inflated hype from the cellular companies. First is that customers don’t see much evidence of the upgrades from one technology to another because the upgrades are made incrementally in little steps. The first customers that bought a 4G cellphone didn’t get very much faster speeds than they had on 3G.

Today the average data speeds in the US on 4G connections are just over 7 Mbps. Some customers in some instances can do much better than that, but that is the average for the billions of connections made. When 4G is finally everywhere (and full 4G may never be put into more rural cell sites) that average speed ought to creep up to about 15 Mbps as long as cell sites aren’t overloaded. The first phones cited as 5G are probably not going to do much better than 4G, but as upgrades are implemented over time the 5G speeds are supposed to creep towards 50 Mbps.

And that is the second problem I see with the inflated claims of the cellular companies. By touting that much faster cellphones are right around the corner they are causing those who would build fiber landline networks to pause. I am sure that this is on purpose – one only has to read an AT&T or Verizon press release to see that is part of their motivation. But nobody would pause in building fiber if these companies were to tell the truth and say that 50 Mbps cellphone coverage might be possible in ten years. That is the real harm from these lies.

Looking Closer at 5G

SONY DSCCisco recently released a white paper titled Cisco 5G Vision Series: Laying the Foundation for New Technologies, Use Cases, and Business Models that lays out their vision of how the cellular industry can migrate from 4G to 5G. It’s a highly technical read and provides insight on how 5G might work and when we might see it in use.

As the white paper points out, the specific goals of 5G are still in the process of being developed. Both 4G and 5G are basically a set of detailed standards used to make sure devices can work on any network meeting the standards. Something that very few people realize is that almost none of the supposed 4G networks in this country actually meet the 4G standards. We are just now seeing the deployment around the world of the first technologies – LTE-Advanced and WIMAX 16m – that meet the original 4G standards. It’s been typical for cellular providers to claim to have 4G when they’ve only met some tiny portion of the standard.

And so, long before we see an actual 5G deployment we are first going to see the deployment of LTE-Advanced followed by generations of improvements that are best described as pre-5G (just as most of what we have today is pre-4G). This evolution means that we should expect incremental improvements in the cellular networks, not a big swooping overhaul.

The paper makes a very clear distinction between indoor 5G and outdoor 5G (which is cellular service). Cisco says that already today that 80% of cellphone usage is done indoors, mostly using WiFi. They envision that in places with a lot of people, like stadiums, shopping centers or large business buildings, that there will be a migration from WiFi to millimeter wave spectrum using the 5G standard. This very well could ultimately result in gigabit speeds on devices with the right antennas to receive that signal.

But these very fast indoor speeds are going to be limited to those places where it’s economically feasible to deploy multiple small cells – and places that have good fiber backhaul. That’s going to mean places with lots of demand and the willingness to pay for such deployments. So you might see fast speeds inside wireless in hospitals, but you are not going to see gigabit speeds while waiting for your car to be repaired or while sitting in the dentist waiting room. And most importantly, you are not going to see gigabit speeds using millimeter wave spectrum outside. All of the early news articles talking about having outdoor gigabit cellular speeds were way off base. This misunderstanding is easy to understand since the press releases from cellular companies have been nebulous and misleading.

So what can be expected outdoors on our cell phones? Cisco says that the ultimate goal of 5G is to be able to deliver 50 Mbps speeds everywhere. At the same time, the 5G standards have the goal of being able to handle a lot more connections at a given cell site. That goal will mean better reception at football games, but it also means a lot more connections will be available to connect to smart cars or Internet of Things devices.

But don’t expect much faster cellular speeds for quite some time. Remember that the goal of 4G was to deliver about 15 Mbps speeds everywhere. And yet today, the average LTE connection in the US is at about half of that speed. The relatively slow speeds of today’s LTE are due to a number of different reasons. First, is the fact that most cell sites are still running pre-4G technology. The willingness of the cellular companies to buy sufficient bandwidth backhaul at cell sites is also a big contributor. I’ve seen in the press that both Verizon and AT&T are looking for ways to reduce backhaul costs – that’s thought to be the major motivation for Verizon to buy XO Communications. Another major issue is that existing cell sites are too far apart to deliver fast data speeds, and it will require a massive deployment of small cell sites (and the accompanying fiber backhaul) to fix the spacing problem.

So long before we see 50 Mbps cellular speeds we will migrate through several generations of incremental improvements in the cellular networks. We are just now seeing the deployment of LTE-Advanced which will finally bring 4G speeds. After that, Cisco has identified what looks to be at least three or four steps of improvements that we will see before we achieve actual 5G cellular.

How long might all of this take? The industry is scheduled to finalize the 5G standards by 2020, and perhaps a little sooner. It looks like there will be a faster push to find millimeter wave solutions for indoor 5G, so we might see those technologies coming first. But it has taken us a decade since the large cellular companies announced deployment of 4G cellular until we are finally starting to see networks that meet that standard. I can’t imagine that the 5G migration will go any faster. And even when 5G gets here, it’s going to hit urban areas long before it hits rural areas. One doesn’t have to drive too far into the country today to find places that are still operating at 3G.

Upgrading to 5G in steps will be expensive for the cellular providers and they are not likely to implement changes too quickly. We will likely see a series of incremental improvements, like they have been doing for many years. So it would not be surprising to be at least until 2030 until there is a cellular system in place that fully meets the 5G standard. Of course, long before then the marketing departments of the wireless providers will tell us that 5G is here – and when they do, everybody looking for blazingly fast cellphone speeds are going to be disappointed.