To hear wireless carriers tell it, fifth-generation (5G) wireless is going to change the world. Verizon, for example, insists the technology is part of a “fourth industrial revolution” heralding the smart cities of tomorrow. Others have claimed 5G will do everything from revolutionize rural telemedicine to have us all working a 4-day work week in no time. But so far, 5G is falling well short of the hype, thanks to mobile carriers that are not only overstating what 5G can do, but where it’s actually available. AT&T, for example, has been widely criticized for trying to trick customers into thinking its existing 4G network is actually 5G—simply by changing phone network icons. Verizon’s early home 5G service (which affixes a 5G antenna to a home’s roof) has been maligned for being barely available in “launched” markets like Sacramento.
The same problem popped up again last week, when Verizon proclaimed the company was the “first in the world” to launch truly mobile 5G service in both Chicago and Minneapolis. But when outlets like CNET and The Verge took a closer look, both found a product that wasn’t ready for prime time. While Verizon’s new networks delivered speeds upwards of 500 Mbps, actually finding a 5G signal in either city was difficult to impossible. And in addition to paying Verizon $10 extra just to connect to 5G, the launch came with several other caveats.
The most notable is the fact that Verizon only currently supports just one phone: the Motorola Moto Z3. Even then, users need to shell out $200 for a mod for the phone to help extend battery life. Why? 5G is a well known battery hog, and the mod was necessary to counter the immense power drain of the four millimeter wave antenna arrays used to nab a 5G signal. Verizon did not respond to a Motherboard request for comment.
The press's disappointment in these launches highlights a technology that’s not fully cooked, something that’s not surprising for the bleeding edge. But many experts warn that even when fully developed and more widely deployed, 5G may never quite live up to its early marketing hype.
Wireless carriers have routinely pitched 5G as a compelling, lower-cost alternative to the fiber networks they’ve long failed to fully deliver. To hear giants like AT&T and Verizon tell it, 5G will easily push broadband to underserved rural markets, ultimately curing the digital divide at a fraction of the cost of full fiber deployment. But Wall Street analysts like Craig Moffett have been casting doubt on those claims. After crunching the data from these early market launches, Moffett is skeptical that carriers will be able to deploy 5G affordably and at scale across the lion’s share of the United States as promised. “It’s not the first time we’ve seen the phone companies over-promise and under-deliver,” Moffett told Motherboard in an email. “5G will happen over years, or maybe even decades, so judging it in its first few weeks isn’t reasonable. But there are reasons to be skeptical about whether 5G will ever live up to the crazy hype that has been created around it.” Aside from unresolved phone battery issues, Moffett told Motherboard that 5G requires “incredibly wide” blocks of spectrum ideally up to 800 MHz wide. The only place blocks of that size reside is in the upper reaches of millimeter wave spectrum. But that spectrum comes with its own issues, Moffett said—namely difficulties with long range signal penetration of building walls, something journalists quickly discovered when testing Verizon’s Chicago 5G launch. As a result, the technology will be useful for many urban environments, but only via the use of numerous “small cells,” frequently placed on city light poles or building roofs. In more rural and suburban markets carriers will rely on “sub-6” (below 6 GHz) spectrum for cost reasons, providing connectivity that’s going to be a far cry from the speeds promised by carrier marketing. “Yes, it will be better than 4G eventually, and it will be great for supporting huge numbers of low bandwidth IoT connections,” Moffett said. “But broad-based availability of the kinds of insane speeds people have gotten so excited reading about won’t be available for many, many years, if at all.”
Groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have long warned that 5G should not be seen as a panacea for the nation’s broadband connectivity issues, and that the hype surrounding the technology obscures the industry’s failure to deploy more resilient fiber connections to vast swaths of America—despite billions in taxpayer subsidies and tax breaks. “Absolutely no way is wireless service ever going to be competitive with high-speed wireline services,” EFF lawyer Ernesto Falcon told Motherboard via email. “The fact is that the fastest speeds the industry is boasting about for the future of wireless has already been surpassed by fiber to the home years ago.” With the nation’s phone companies refusing to upgrade (or even repair) aging DSL lines, cable giants like Comcast and Spectrum are securing a bigger monopoly than ever over broadband. That monopoly means less competition, which in turn means higher prices, terrible customer service, and little incentive to deploy better service to rural markets.
5G isn’t likely to fix that problem for many reasons, not least of which being the geographical monopolies carriers enjoy over business broadband connections and cellular tower backhaul, keeping prices high. The bizarre restrictions wireless carriers are likely to impose on these wireless lines in the post net neutrality era aren’t likely to help matters. “All available evidence suggests that relying on 5G to solve rural broadband challenges or creating real competition is misplaced,” said Christopher Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self Reliance. “It will help around the edges for a minority of households in both cases but will not substantially solve either problem for most.”
Meanwhile, many consumers are perfectly happy with current 4G speeds, which range anywhere from 15 to 50 Mbps. Many surveys indicate users are far more interested in lower prices—something that’s not part of the industry’s plan for 5G, and could easily get worse in the face of apathetic regulators and looming wireless industry consolidation.
While there’s little doubt that 5G will eventually offer better, faster, lower latency wireless networks, experts warn that 5G is more of a slow, natural evolution than some kind of magical revolution. And if carriers aren’t careful, overhyping an undercooked product could sour the public on the genuine benefits that 5G will deliver—assuming you’re in range.