5G Has Become The Magic Pixie Dust Of Tech Policy Conversations

from the hype-parade dept

Fifth generation wireless (5G) has quickly become a sort of magical carrot on a stick in tech and telecom policy circles. Telecom lobbyists and the Ajit Pai FCC have spent the better part of the last two years trying to claim that unless we gut consumer protections like net neutrality, America will somehow fall behind in the "race" to 5G. U.S. companies have also convinced the government that if America doesn't want to lose said race (whatever that means), we most assuredly should ban cheaper Chinese networking gear from the country (the protectionism angle of this is entirely coincidental, they'll insist).

More recently, Sprint and T-Mobile have been telling anybody who'll listen that their competition and job eroding merger is the only way to ensure that America doesn't fall behind on 5G. Despite the fact that both companies are on record clearly stating they both could have easily deployed 5G independently, that same argument popped up again this week during merger hearings on Capitol Hill. As did the well-weathered claim that the merger is essential if America wants to beat China in the rush to 5G and avoid being laughed at by the other kids on the 5G playground:

"In prepared remarks, T-Mobile CEO John Legere ties the proposed merger to “American innovation and national security,” and specifically argues that the merger will be necessary to make the United States a leader on next-generation 5G network technology. “The stakes are high — nothing less than preserving our edge in innovation and maintaining our security,” he plans to say.

The CEO plans to say that the US is “falling behind” China on 5G, which he says “has taken a global lead in the race.” He says in the remarks that only a newly merged T-Mobile will be able to compete.

Of course this is all bullshit. As we've noted previously, the "race to 5G" rhetoric is largely nonsense crafted by hardware vendors looking to sell more network hardware and wireless carriers looking to justify high US mobile data prices and spur lagging phone and tablet sales. It's not a race, there's no way to measure a winner (especially given our broadband maps are hot garbage due to regulatory capture), and the only folks likely to win this particular game are the companies selling the hype and related products.

5G is important, but it's not paradigm-rattling important.

5G will be a very useful evolution in wireless in that it will provide faster, lower latency networks that are more easily managed (in large part due to virtualization technology). But 5G is not some mystical fucking panacea. It can't, for example, magically compensate for the reduction in competition in the wake of the T-Mobile deal, a bit of mathematics that never ends well for consumers (go ask a Canadian or the Irish). It won't miraculously compensate for regulatory capture at the Ajit Pai FCC. Given these and other broken market realities, it's unlikely to result in what consumers really want: lower prices.

In tech policy circles, 5G has become the equivalent of lobbying and policy mysticism, entirely untethered from factual reality. You just sprinkle a little bit on your argument and you can use it to justify pretty much anything. Blake Reid, a Professor at Colorado Law, probably put it best:

Again, it's perfectly fine if you're realistically enthusiastic about the modest but important improvements 5G networks are going to bring. But carriers have been trying to pass the technology off as the next industrial revolution and some kind of deus ex machina. Not just because they want to sell product, but because they're using it as a regulatory carrot on a stick, claiming that unless you give big telecom "X" (X=less oversight, more subsidies, merger approval, the death of net neutrality), America will somehow fall behind an arbitrary measurement they've entirely pulled out of their collective ass.

If we follow down the rabbit hole hyping 5G without addressing the massive problems in both the fixed and wireless US broadband markets, this race ends with all of us crying and nursing a pulled hamstring.

Filed Under: 5g, hype, overhype, wireless


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  1. icon
    Fred McTaker (profile), 17 Feb 2019 @ 7:07pm

    5G proves we don't need carriers at all.

    Ironically, real 5G technologies are existence proofs that the spectrum-monopoly policies exploited by Big Telco/Broadcast with generous help from their captured regulators worldwide have never been necessary. All the 5G bandwidth advantages come from efficient reuse of spectrum over both time and space, just like the open spectrum technologies WiFi and MIMO. Giving out regional monopolies over light waves makes distributing these signals LESS efficient.

    In other words, to get the best 5G networks possible, all cell and broadcast corporate spectrum licenses should be rescinded and eliminated. Thus Open Spectrum policy should be the only policy.

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