Every new generation of mobile technology comes with its own hype and over-promises — that is simply the nature of the industry. Back in the 2G wireless communications days, the industry was battling over which was best: GSM or CDMA. Millions, and maybe billions, of dollars went into marketing the two technologies, with vendors in distinct camps.
Then along came 3G wireless communications. (Actually, this was the initial generation to be labeled with a G — 2G and 1G were retrospective). A battle ensued between UMTS and CDMA2000/EVDO, and the same pattern followed: Each side promised peak performance, efficient deployment and cost benefits for mobile operators. Proponents of each technology family argued that the other was not real 3G. And devices in this era were mainly flip phones, Blackberries (remember those?) and, at the very end, the Apple iPhone.
4G wireless communications saw the first standardization among the mobile operators with the selection of Long Term Evolution (LTE) modulation of the radio wave that carries the wireless signal. The debates started again as to whether LTE was real 4G and whether another technology, such as WiMAX, should have been selected. But the world went to LTE and ensured that the Long Term Evolution moniker was jokingly referred to as Long Term Employment. The introduction of LTE coincided with the growth of the shiny glass block smartphone designs, and the two grew together — LTE needed smartphones to realize the benefits from data speeds, and the new smartphones needed LTE to make the applications useful and valuable. As smartphone use grew, so did mobile data demand, which resulted in higher network investment for the mobile operators.
Now we get to 5G wireless communications and again, the industry is promising the world: broadband data service closer to a fiber experience; ultra-low latency; lower operating costs; home broadband services; millimeter-wave devices; IoT support on a massive scale; a thinner, richer and better looking you. You get the idea.
In its haste to get to 5G as fast as possible, the initial 5G standard was split into two parts: Release 15 New Radio (NR) to define the radio component and Release 16 to define the 5G Core. To get the entire set of 5G capabilities (broadband mobile data and low latency), you need both the radio component and the 5G core piece. Rel. 15 was finalized in June 2018, and although the 5G Core has been defined, Rel. 16 will not be frozen until the fourth quarter of 2019 or the start of 2020.
And of course, operators have been rushing to be first to launch 5G. Verizon Wireless has launched its nonstandard 5G fixed wireless service in a few markets. Meanwhile, AT&T Mobility promised initial 5G mobile service before the end of 2018.
So, where are we, really, with 5G today? What can consumers really expect? And how close are we to offering a real 5G service?
1. The Verizon Fixed Wireless service is nonstandard, and anyone who buys this today will get new customer premises equipment (CPE) as Verizon moves the initial builds to 5G NR. Why did the company not wait? Because it wanted to be first.
2. The Verizon 5G Home service is available in highly limited areas. Do a search and read some of the Reddit posts — they are enlightening. There are consumers who live on the same street in the initial launch markets, and people at one end of the street can get the service while people at the other end cannot. The initial coverage is highly limited, probably because of No. 1 above.
3. The vendors continue to work on standards (they are always working on the next version), but they have found some 23 problems with the June Rel. 15 freeze that are not backward compatible. In other words, there are problems that need addressing that may mean that devices using the June 2018 freeze will need to have firmware updates or be replaced (to be determined). How did this occur? Simply in the rush to get the 5G NR standard approved, a few things slipped through.
4. So now the question for the initial 5G NR mobile operators is, do they launch with the June 2018 freeze version and risk having to replace devices? Or do they wait a few months or a quarter and miss launching in 2018?
5. Consumers need 5G devices to buy so they can use the new services. AT&T will launch mobile 5G with a puck and not a smartphone or tablet. 5G smartphones will not come until the first part of 2019, with more mainstream devices launching later in 2019. The Intel 5G chipset, which promises great performance, will be available in the second half of 2019, with the first devices using it in 2020. This means that, unless there is a shift in the silicon provider, Apple will not have a 5G iPhone until 2020.
6. The 5G core is needed for low-latency services and a range of 5G capabilities. The major operators are now talking with vendors about the 5G core for deployment starting late 2020. Although this sounds a long way off, remember it is really only 13 or 15 months away — and this is equivalent to next week in network terms. But this does mean that many 5G features and capabilities will not be here until late 2020 or 2021.
7. So for 2019, the talk will be about 5G launches and introductions, but the reality will be more Gigabit LTE devices (with impressive speeds), slowly increasing coverage for the fixed wireless options and 5G devices coming later in the year — for some.
The industry has overreached and overpromised this time. Consumers are generally aware of 5G and may expect to buy services and devices soon. So, while LTE continues to go from strength to strength (Gigabit LTE, for example), 5G needs time. It is a big job to deploy a new network technology, and it really cannot be rushed. We are most likely to look back in half a decade or so and conclude that the initial 5G launch was a bust and we should have been more patient. And those operators that rushed to be first may realize that this is a marathon, not a sprint.
5G will not die. 5G will succeed, but it is going to take time and patience. Good things come to those who wait.
Iain Gillott is the founder and president of iGR, a market strategy consultancy focused on the wireless and mobile communications industry. The company researches and analyzes the effect new wireless and mobile technologies will have on the industry, on vendors’ competitive positioning and on its clients’ strategic business plans. Visit www.igr-inc.com.
This article originally ran in the March 2019 issue of AGL Magazine.