For several years now, wireless carriers have been busy telling anybody who’d listen that fifth-generation (5G) wireless will be a game-changing broadband revolution. Time and time again, their marketing departments have breathlessly insisted that everything from smart cities to next-gen medical care will only be possible through the miracle of 5G connections. “Going from 4G to 5G is like going from black and white to color TV,” recently proclaimed Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure while trying to sell the company’s recently-proposed merger with T-Mobile. “It’s a seismic shift—one that only the combined company can unlock nationwide to fuel the next wave of mobile innovation.” But while 5G will be a natural, evolutionary step forward for wireless, it’s far from the earth-rattling societal transformation we’re being promised. “5G” is really just a collection of emerging antenna and core network technologies that will make wireless networks faster, more efficient, with lower latencies. But at the end of the day the “5G revolution” is really just a slightly-better version of the 4G LTE networks you’re already familiar with. Actual commercial deployment and handset availability isn’t expected until 2020 or later.
Buried beneath the hype rests a growing sense that wireless carriers are aggressively over-selling the technology’s potential. Eric Xu, current Huawei Chairman, recently argued at an industry conference that consumers will ultimately “find no material difference between 5G & LTE." Meanwhile, industry analysts recently told the Financial Times that most of the technologies hyped as “only made possible by 5G” (smart cars and connected cities) don’t actually need 5G networks to thrive. Buried beneath the 5G hype is the fact that Americans already pay some of the highest prices for mobile connectivity among all developed nations, thanks in large part to the monopoly companies like AT&T and Verizon enjoy over the fiber lines that feed cellular towers. So whatever “5G” winds up looking like, expect to continue paying through the nose for it. Meanwhile, however silly the hype surrounding 5G has been, the emerging narrative that we’re engaged in some kind of “race to 5G” is arguably sillier. The Trump FCC has been engaging in some facts-optional protectionism by banning Chinese network vendors from the U.S. market based on some pretty shaky (and often hypocritical) mass-spying allegations. Buried under this quest to “protect national security” rests the belief that deploying these networks is a “race,” and protectionism (read: keeping companies like Cisco from having to compete with overseas vendors) will somehow help us win it.
As Sprint and T-Mobile try to sell their looming merger to the public and skeptical regulators, they too have taken to heavily pandering to this concept, proclaiming in press releases that the United States can only “win” the “race to 5G” if the two companies are allowed to merge. “Only the combined company will have the network capacity required to quickly create a broad and deep 5G nationwide network in the critical first years of the 5G innovation cycle – the years that will determine if American firms lead or follow in the 5G digital economy,” the two companies proclaim. “Neither company standing alone can create a nationwide 5G network with the breadth and depth required to fuel the next wave of mobile Internet innovation in the U.S. and answer competitive challenges from abroad,” T-Mobile and Sprint insist.
But again, if you understand that 5G is just a modest step forward, the idea that we need to eliminate one of four major competitors to achieve it quickly falls apart. Both Sprint and T-Mobile have spent years proclaiming they’d have no problem deploying 5G technology independently. Suddenly, we’re told we’re only able to win this theoretical race if we reduce competition. “The ‘China is winning on 5G’ argument of Sprint and T-Mobile is creative, and probably the only rationale they could concoct after the government twice before rejected their proposal to reduce national wireless competition from four providers to three,” former FCC boss Tom Wheeler stated in a blog post this week, referring to regulators’ 2014 decision to block the same deal.
Wheeler went on to argue that the government's efforts surrounding “winning on 5G,” so far amounts to “making consumers losers by taking away competition.”
The average consumer doesn’t really care about beating other countries to 5G, they just want less expensive connections capable of streaming Netflix. And given that numerous countries routinely dominate the States in terms of wireless speeds, pricing and availability, looking at the pack leaders from behind isn’t something new for American consumers.
The United States is ranked somewhere around 62nd in terms of average 4G network speeds.
There’s numerous reasons for this, including geography and population. But it’s also thanks to the fact that corruption and regulatory capture routinely shift the policy focus away from building the inexpensive and resilient networks of tomorrow, and toward reducing competition wherever and however possible to maximize carrier and hardware vendor revenues.
The solution to these problems won’t involve over-hyping a natural and modest technological evolution to try and make it sound like the second coming. Nor does it rest in protectionist policies that fail utterly to address the country’s biggest problems, namely: high prices, limited competition, corrupt government officials and terrible customer service.
It’s certainly true that 5G technology, whenever it finally arrives, will provide healthier, faster, and lower latency networks. But the idea that it’s going to revolutionize American broadband and magically place us at the cutting edge of tech innovation is just marketing nonsense, twisted and distorted to try and sell more US networking gear or boost carrier profits. If America truly wants to improve its wireless networks, the solution rests with finding ways to drive more competition to market while bringing greater accountability in government leaders, not in protectionism, hype, or marketing fluff and nonsense.