It is finally coming around to being a bit rarer to see a weekly missive on how 5G is doing, much less two in one week. So, since we are on a roll let us make that three with this column.
Hmmm… there must be something in the wind. Now, there are always news bytes about new 5G deployments, or new test case results, or other news about 5G such as an announcement of a 5G Studio product by Verizon.
Yesterday there was also a dipping of the toes back into the 5G “race” ridiculousness with a title of “Rootmetrics reflects on the U.S. 5G race: It’s a tight one.” Although the only mention of the word was in the title. The rest of the piece just regurgitated Rootmetrics data.
However, last week Light reading penned a piece with the title of “Standalone shaping up to be 5G’s next big flop.” It is a rather lively and somewhat jocular story restating data and opinions but with a bit of a humorous approach. My hat is off to any journalist willing to call out 5G’s weaknesses.
His delivery was reminiscent of the story – The Emperor’s New Clothes by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, written in the mid-1830s. As the story goes, the King was a clothes hound but in reality, was always naked, but none of his subjects dared to say anything.
Seems that is the mantra of 5G, it is a bit of a ruse in performance as of now. But occasionally, someone calls the King naked, metaphorically speaking, as did this piece.
What surprised me is it was penned by a “news” editor who has little technical understanding of wireless and the media outlet is also not technical. News editors generally do not call shots like this, especially when they have no technical expertise. However, he took the general performance of 5G and called it like it is as a user – kudos to him.
As big a fan as I am of 5G, what I am not a fan of is the continuous noise that it is such a better platform than 4G and how successful it is. Well, so far it “ain’t”
There are three major issues that 5G currently has. The first is availability. Some locations, such as New York, claim to have at least 50 percent 5G availability. That means that users are more likely to connect to 5G in such places. However, it turns out being 5G connected does not necessarily mean improved performance.
The latest test results from the guardian of wireless speeds, Ookla, say that New York’s 5G median download speed is just about 110 Mbps. While that is certainly an improvement in the typical 4G download speeds of 30 to 50 Mbps, it is not earth-shattering. And if one on 5G only 50 percent of the time that knocks the average download speeds to somewhere around 60 – 70 Mbps, maybe?
The second is latency. Real questions are being raised around how latency less than 10 ms will actually matter to users of mobile networks. Certainly, sub-10-millisecond service might be needed for use cases such as Smart factory/industrial automation, augmented reality (AR)-assisted surgery, smart grids, autonomous vehicles, military (make sure one gets instant feedback as they laser in on a target, right?), and certainly others we have yet to establish. However, these are all specialized applications.
For general consumer mobile broadband (even enhanced) downloading a 4K move to a 4” screen smartphone in five seconds seems way overrated to me.
There is also the argument that, especially with the coming Wi-Fi evolution, many times users would be on Wi-Fi for things like gaming, or when not moving. And with Wi-Fi 7 on the horizon, its specification will challenge 5G’s technical performance.
The third is dynamic network management (aka network slicing). Right now, this is a netherwear. The idea behind this is that everybody pays to get the bandwidth they need. While that sounds good in theory, it will be a while until the technology is ready for prime time and the implementation lives up to the hype of having a dynamic, real-time, on-demand, infinitely variable, programmable systems enabling faster and more agile creation of services and network slices (whew!).
One of the concerns that has been creeping up is about the ubiquity of 5G. While certainly, 5G will need to be ubiquitous for global end-user enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) success, it is not that guaranteed for other use cases. For example, it may not be as in demand as the telco expect outside of personal communications.
The fact is that organizations are looking to non-telco network options – private networks using Wi-Fi, unlicensed 4G, and 5G, and others. That would dampen the demand for telco-provided 5G services. According to a report from Omdia Research, 20 percent of enterprises plan on using non-telco private networks with nearly twice that many investigating such options.
As well, there is the recent resurrection of net neutrality. It does not matter whether it at the federal level, or the state level, if it does not survive past this administration, it will play into this as well by casting a bit of a shadow on how and what “premium” services will be and how the model of services can be monetized.
Finally, there is the question of getting standalone out there in sufficient density to make a difference for telco-supplied networks. The state of 5G SA is all but nonexistent so far. What we see is non-standalone. If standalone does not offer significant new use cases and performance over what we have now, it will be a hard sell for the telcos.
For the consumer current 4G network performance is quite good in the U.S. So just switching to a 5G SA network without meaningful benefits for the consumer will simply be like improving roads without more lanes and faster speed limits but with the same old vehicles. While it may become more and more available, without something to make it shine it will just be an icon on the user’s smartphone.
And yes, I understand it takes time to build the roads and replace the vehicles. However, we are in a place in the evolution where there few upgraded roads and vehicles. What does exist is simply islands and the user is not seeing much of the glitz and glamour of 5G marketing claims.
The argument I come back to is that 5G will enable new services, use cases, and benefits that have yet to be envisioned. I just hope that happens before the 5G balloon is too deflated.
Ernest Worthman is an executive editor with AGL Media Group.