The Brutal Truth About 5G
Don’t let the headlines fool you. Sure, Verizon became the first U.S. wireless carrier to turn on its 5G network recently, but there are a ton of misconceptions floating around about the next-gen networking technology, and some hard truths that need to be discussed in order to clarify what the heck is actually going on with 5G. I thought we solved this back in January when we did our post-CES brain dump. But in the few months since our trip to Vegas, this industry only seems more confused as to where we actually stand at the moment with this technology.
As I posited then, 5G is absolutely going to be a technology that changes the ways in which we interact with our devices, and it’s going to give those devices the ability to do a heck of a lot more, a lot faster. For all of the attention that’s placed on the speed upgrade that 5G will provide, just as important—if not more so—will be the network’s ability to reduce latency to near zero, and increase the size of the pipes delivering data to and from our devices, and that extends well beyond just the smartphone. On the low latency side, reduced reaction times with things like sensors will really lend itself to the improvement of V2V or V2X (vehicle-to-vehicle or vehicle-to-device) systems. And with the increased networking bandwidth, 5G will be crucial to the development of things like 8K streaming services, which will thrive on the network—when it’s ready.
And that last point is really the crux of what we need to talk about before we go any further or hear about any more 5G networks being “flipped on” by mobile carriers here or abroad. All of the promise that 5G carries and will bring to our IoT-enabled devices and smartphones will be realized as soon as the network is ready.
Real 5G Isn’t Available Yet
The jump from 4G LTE to 5G is a lot bigger than the jump that we had from 3G to our current network a decade ago, and even then we had a lot of growing pains. So, simply flipping some theoretical switch isn’t going to instantly improve our networking experience. But, even as carriers in the U.S. are out there promoting their stepping stone services, what they’re touting as 5G, or 5G evolution, isn’t really, truly, actually this next-gen networking technology.
Networking protocols and standards for the global mobile industry are set by an organization called the 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership project), which is made up of mobile industry associations and alliances on just about every continent. 3GPP hasn’t yet published its finalized specifications for 5G. For certain, the group has been hard at work preparing for the network’s imminent launch by laying the groundwork via several piecemeal spec releases—including their Non-Standalone and Standalone specs that were published in March 2018 and June 2018 respectively. But what we’re looking at is essentially a deconstructed PB&J sandwich. We’ve got a slice of bread with peanut butter and a slice of bread with jelly sitting on the table in front of us, but doesn’t yet make a true sandwich. They haven’t been integrated together yet, and that’s what 3GPP is working on right now. Release 16, which is scheduled to publish closer to the end of this year and possibly in early 2020, is considered to be the fully integrated and functioning 5G spec.
That’s not to say the 5G network Verizon launched in April isn’t legitimate or up to snuff. Rather, it’s just incomplete. They’ve launched their network essentially in beta mode, which is more than AT&T can say with its highly misleading launch and subsequent marketing of 5Ge. Verizon's efforts present a unique set of challenges for the carrier, as Business Insider noted. Users in Chicago and Minneapolis, where Verizon’s 5G service was turned on, have certainly experienced strong download speeds, ranging between 400Mbps and 600Mbps—nearly 10-times faster than the current 4G LTE speeds—but they’ve been lagging, and in some instances much slower than 4G speeds in terms of uploading. Additionally, the coverage area in those locations is reportedly small and spotty, and it’s having a tough time providing connectivity in buildings in the areas it is available.
In the long run, this early launch may give Verizon the opportunity to work out the kinks and get its network running more efficiently before other carriers. But at the outset, the overblown news of the launch certainly could result in negative perceptions of both the carrier and the 5G network as a whole.
Hold Off on Upgrading Your Phone
Turns out, Apple might’ve had it right all along. While smartphone makers and carriers are out here slinging new 5G products and services around, poking fun at the iPhone maker for holding their customers back by not offering a 5G iPhone until at least 2020, it’s Apple who will end up looking like the brilliant, deliberate consumer tech brand when all is said and done. (Par for the course, I guess.) For all of the 5G phones that were announced during Q1 of this year, none of them will be able to operate on a fully functional 5G network until at least early 2020. And even then, the network will still be in the early stages of full deployment.
From my perspective, all manufacturers and carriers are doing is setting consumers up to experience an excessive amount of frustration. They’re going to have these great, expensive devices in their pockets, but they’ll barely be able to tap into a 5G network—unless they live in a select few neighborhoods in a select few cities. The optics of a situation like this tells me that they’re all just a little too impatient, and they’re trying to capitalize financially on the buzz this new network is creating.
So, sure, I’ll gladly wait another cycle or two to get myself up and running on this new 5G network, which, by that point, should be on much more solid footing and available in a few more locations throughout the country and across the globe.
Sub 6GHz vs. mmWave
Get to know these two terms. The 5G network will exist and be made available in two different forms: sub-6GHz bands and mmWave (millimeter wave) bands. The difference between the two is a critical one to understand both as a consumer and as someone in a position to educate the consumer on this technology.
There’s a lot that goes into what makes these bands different from one another, but what it boils down to is this: sub-6 is a slightly slower version of 5G that still provides extremely-low latency, relatively large bandwidth and stronger coverage. mmWave bands are where the truly fast 5G speeds will be realized, but because of the nature of these wireless networking bands, they will struggle to provide coverage indoors without the presence of multiple network boosters. As has been reported, mmWave struggles to penetrate through things like tinted windows let alone drywall, brick, or concrete. So, how cities and carriers work together to expand 5G coverage, and which deployment method they ultimately decide to integrate will be something to watch moving forward.
So, to bring this all back together, the 5G deployments that have been announced are real, but they’re operating on a yet-to-be-finalized set of standards. The world needs guinea pigs and early adopters, but the public push that 5G has received around this launch and the launch of compatible devices is a little too strong for my liking. Carriers and manufacturers really need to do a better job of tampering expectations, because the less-aware consumers are going to feel completely duped when their 5G-ready phones are stuck running on 4G speeds or worse.