5G will be the cause of transformative, disruptive changes across our world. At least, that was the promise. As fifth-generation wireless networks begin rolling out across the globe in 2020, though, the world's richest economy feels further behind than ever in the race to deploy new spectrum and networks to accommodate this major technical shift. And that trend shows few signs of letting up for years to come.
While American telecom operators AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint all have grand visions and big plans for 5G here in the US, none currently have the ability to deploy broad 5G networks that will be both comparable in size to and significantly more performant than their existing advanced 4G LTE networks. And that's becoming hard to ignore in the face of the first popular 5G phones going on sale in this country, for which no 4G-only variants are available. In fact, it seems increasingly likely that none of these first mass market 5G phones will provide a network experience significantly better than their 4G counterparts during much of their useful lifetimes, despite the fact that they cost a whole lot more. For American consumers, 5G still seems more worthy of fringe lunatic fearmongering than any actual excitement. And right now, I feel eminently safe in the assertion that 5G is decidedly Not Here in 2020, at least in the USA.
So, who or what is to blame? The critical factor holding back America's 5G networks is not just the FCC, especially greedy carriers, bungled handset hardware (a la 4G), or 5G itself not being "ready" — all are certainly true to varying extents.
After even 10 years of 4G development, most carriers can't even keep up with typical (read: pathetic) American home broadband speeds.
Arguably, the largest barrier to 5G in this country are the airwaves themselves; namely, there aren't enough of them to go around. And our federal government is really where the buck stops on that issue. Until recently, America's FCC has refused to aggressively consolidate and free up high frequency spectrum to cellular providers in this country, instead hoping that advances in spectral efficiency, edge computing, AI, and core network technologies would allow our carriers to do more and more while actually needing little to no more spectrum to do it. But this fantasy has never meaningfully materialized. Wireless networks on America's urban cores are congested by video streaming, its suburbs spotty, and its rural markets woefully underserved. After even 10 years of 4G development, most carriers can't even keep up with typical (read: pathetic) American home broadband speeds. Initially, 4G's biggest cheerleaders talked about gigabit download rates, but a decade later, the real world experience remains a small fraction of that for most of us day to day. Certainly, carriers share the blame for this. Many advanced LTE deployments in major metros outside the United States regularly spank American LTE networks in side by side testing. Our carriers could absolutely be investing more in the US's most congested markets; increasing backhaul capacity, adding more small cells, better utilizing unlicensed spectrum — the list goes on. Yet their united response to our growing thirst for data is "5G," and it's a promise they seem woefully incapable of delivering.
5G's greatest promise has been, from day one, the concept of the "fat pipe." That's because right now, the greatest challenge facing carriers is simply the sheer volume of crap we're sending and receiving on their networks. Most of said crap is video streaming, but online gaming, VR/AR, and other as yet unforeseen use cases are expected to only grow in the coming years, further stressing those networks. The easiest way to prepare for this massive growth in data consumption is to create a wireless network which has incredibly high throughput capacity, so that instead of lingering on (and thus congesting) the network constantly, our devices can use extremely high-speed networks to buffer much of that 4K HDR Netflix show in a few seconds, rather than over the course of an hour bit by bit. Once we get off that super ultra-fast connection, it's then freed up, and your background data ideally transmits over a slower, "skinnier" frequency band. The problem is that, in order to have this high-speed fat pipe, you need a wide swath of ideally uninterrupted spectrum to do it (100MHz of solid bandwidth is generally a good starting point). But essentially no available spectrum in the US market meets this criteria, with the lone exception being that leased to Sprint. This is quickly exposing critical flaws in the current US 5G rollout.
T-Mobile and AT&T's more widely deployed 5G networks are unlikely to be meaningfully faster than their current 4G ones.
T-Mobile and AT&T's more widely deployed 5G networks are unlikely to be meaningfully faster than their current 4G ones for the foreseeable future, and very realistically could even be slower in some markets, as PCMag's Sascha Segan points out. Verizon's pin-prick mmWave 5G is so narrowly deployed and so fickle to actually use that its multi-gigabit speeds are no more "real" than those demonstrated in a controlled laboratory. And while Sprint's mid-band 5G shows some promise, it remains lightly deployed because Sprint can't afford to take it nationwide (at least until the T-Mobile merger closes). None of these critical issues seem likely to resolve in a big way for consumers before 2022, and could conceivably take even longer if operators halt, shift, and pivot their plans in light of consumer migration rates, 5G specification changes, and federal spectrum policy — all of which seem increasingly likely wrenches in the works.
While it is true that LTE took its time to come to America in a big way, that was true almost everywhere around the world. It was a massive change, and one which proved much trickier than I think carriers and handset makers had initially anticipated. 5G was supposed to take everything we learned from those 4G growing pains and mitigate them, but instead, it has come with entirely new ones. The mid-band spectrum crunch, fickle millimeter wave technology, and the little promise low-band 5G has shown to date have combined into a uniquely American 5G layer cake: one which leaves a bad taste in the mouth on almost every level, and probably will for a good, long while.