5G Is Not A 'Race,' And We're Incapable Of Determining Winners Even If It Was

from the more-like-a-hamster-wheel 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 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 everything, and everyone.

Reality looks, well, different. Look under the hood at any of the growing 5G "launch" markets, and you'll find service is usually barely available. Hardware support is barely existent and clunky. And while 5G networks are faster and more reliable, they're going to come at a premium, lessening the appeal to US consumers who already pay some of the highest prices in the developed world. Even Vint Cerf is underwhelmed.

Undaunted, industry has used 5G as some kind of mystical tech policy pixie dust. As in, they've been telling lawmakers around the world that unless industry gets whatever the hell it wants (less oversight, a fat new tax cut, merger approval), your country will lose the "race to 5G." China is routinely presented as our arch nemesis in this endeavor, with framing that indicates that if China wins said "race to 5G," something apparently quite terrible will happen. The frequency of this narrative is fairly intense:

And it's usually driven by hardware vendors looking to convince the public, press, and regulators that if a country loses said "race," some immense, horrific, techo-calamity will occur:

Oh no! Don't be left behind! The US technically "won" the "race to 4G," but over time (thanks in no small part to regulatory capture), US 4G LTE networks are not only far more expensive than a long list of countries, our 4G LTE networks are currently some of the slowest anywhere. How'd winning that race turn out?

Here in reality, even if 5G was a race, we're incapable of measuring who's winning. US government broadband mapping efforts have long been a shitshow. Here in the US, wireless carriers are actively trying to exclude 5G from efforts to improve said maps. Why? They know that contrary to their claims, 5G, like 4G and 3G before it, is going to have highly spotty availability. In large part because 5G (especially millimeter wave) needs a lot of fiber. You remember fiber? The technology AT&T and Verizon received billions in taxpayer subsidies to deploy and then refused to finish around halfway through?

Meanwhile, who do you trust to tell you China is actually winning the race to 5G? The Chinese government? Companies like Huawei, whose only interest is in portraying immeasurable success? Similarly, who do we trust in the States to inform us of our noble victory? The Ajit Pai FCC, which routinely simply makes things up at industry behest? The carriers themselves, who've already taken to using bogus phone icons to falsely suggest 5G is far more widely available than it actually is?

5G is absolutely an important evolution, creating faster, better, more resilient networks. But it's not a race. It's a massive, often cumbersome effort that will take the better part of the next decade. And it's not a panacea; many of the same problems we have now (high prices, stifled fiber deployment, mindless merger mania causing eroded competition, corruption) will all be very present as we stumble our way forward, stifling the technology's full potential.

There's a reason why industry wants 5G portrayed as a race, and it has nothing to do with winning, and everything to do with creating an environment where regulators and companies rush head first into deploying a new technology on industry's terms, without thinking much about things that aren't important to industry, like affordability, open and fair networks, and uniform availability.

Filed Under: 5g, competition, wireless


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  1. icon
    John85851 (profile), 8 Nov 2019 @ 10:35am

    Re: The standard isn't complete

    What do you mean? This is the US! If we say we're at the finish line and we won the race, then we won! We won, I tell you!
    Now let's win the race to 6G!! Keep aiming higher!

    Just ignore the fact that the "losers", meaning the countries who were slower to develop the technology. were the ones to deploy it better and cheaper. And they're the ones who watched the "winners" stumble and learned from their mistakes.


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