The 'Race To 5G' Is Largely Just Marketing Nonsense
from the double-hype dept
By now you’ve probably been informed that the next-generation of wireless broadband technology is going to revolutionize everything. Much like they did with 3G and 4G, wireless carriers like AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile have repeatedly hyped the fifth-generation (5G) wireless standard, insisting that the technology will somehow usher forth a “societal transformation” that’s going to have a magical, cascading impact on every sector in technology, from the internet of (broken) things to the smart cities and self-driving car technologies of tomorrow.
The idea that we’re in a “race to 5G” with other nations has been a cornerstone of the Trump administration’s factually-dubious protectionism aimed at blacklisting Chinese hardware vendors. And hoping to pander to this sentiment, both T-Mobile and Sprint have played up this rhetoric in public statements as they seek approval of their job and competition killing megamerger:
“Ubiquitous high-speed 5G service and Internet of Things (?IoT?) capabilities will ignite innovation across industries and create the conditions for U.S. firms and innovators to lead the globe in the 5G era.
?Going from 4G to 5G is like going from black and white to color TV,? added Claure. ?It?s a seismic shift ? one that only the combined company can unlock nationwide to fuel the next wave of mobile innovation.”
Time and time again, the two companies insist that 5G will somehow create a world of innovation and new technology (though only if the government agrees to reduce competition and approve their $23 billion merger):
“5G for All will unleash incredible benefits and capabilities for consumers and businesses. Imagine, for example, augmented reality heads-up displays that see everything you do, and provide real-time cloud-driven information about the people and objects around you. Imagine never losing anything again because low-cost sensors with decade long battery life are embedded in everything you own. Imagine an earpiece providing real-time translation as a friend speaks to you in another language. Imagine environmental sensors in infrastructure and for agriculture having a profound impact on productivity.”
How exciting! The problem: none of those ideas really require “5G” to function, and can be easily developed on existing 4G infrastructure and technologies. 5G might modestly help make data delivery a little faster and more resilient, but 5G technology is not the technology equivalent of Doctor Strange.
You’ll find the same rhetoric over at the website of the CTIA, the lobbying arm for major wireless companies. There, you’ll find the “race to 5G” prominently hyped alongside all manner of breathless claims about how America must win said race or people could lose their jobs:
“The next generation of wireless is coming. The race to lead the world in 5G is underway and countries like China, South Korea, and Japan are doing everything they can to win. The competition carries real stakes. Today, the wireless industry supports over 4.7 million jobs and contributes roughly $475 billion annually to the American economy. 5G will be even more transformative?making our lives better, our communities safer, and our nation more prosperous. It?s important the United States do everything we can to maintain our wireless leadership. Because when we win the race to 5G, we all win.”
It’s simply not a race. Yes, companies like Cisco may see it as a race in terms of selling more routers than their overseas competitors, but deployment of 5G networks and handsets (which won’t even truly take off until 2020 or thereafter) isn’t like a 100 meter dash. It’s a lengthy, convoluted process that’s going to take years to define, test and implement.
The reality, which simply doesn’t sound as sexy in company press releases, is that 5G is less a seismic shift, and more of a modest, natural evolution. Yes, 5G technology will involve all manner of new core network, virtualization, and antenna technologies that should make existing wireless networks faster, more resilient, with lower latency. But the standard is not going to magically eliminate all of the problems that make American wireless networks some of the slowest (we’re ranked somewhere around 62 in 4G LTE speeds) and most expensive (40th) among all developed nations.
The reasons we’re lagging behind in wireless price, speed and innovation isn’t because of software and hardware standards. It’s because the entire broadband sector suffers from regulatory capture, where entrenched, wealthy players dictate nearly all meaningful spectrum and competition policy with state and federal lawmakers and regulators. It’s also because just a few companies (AT&T, Verizon), enjoy a government protected monopoly over the business data service market that feeds everything from cellular tower backhaul to ATMs.
So will 5G be an improvement over 4G? Sure. But unless we address the underlying problems that keep the U.S. wireless notably broken (spectrum policy, regulatory capture, our fascination with mindless, competition and job killing megamergers), we’re not going to be “winning” much of anything beyond higher mobile data bills.