Why You Shouldn’t Get Excited About 5G Networks Just Yet

Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images

Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images

The next generation of wireless technology is on its way. Even as wireless carriers are struggling to offer fast 4G LTE networks to American consumers thanks to oversubscription, lack of spectrum, and slow technological innovation, carriers are already eyeing 5G, a new cellular technology that will be faster and better able to manage large numbers of Internet of Things devices. Carriers are already beginning to test 5G technology, even though researchers haven’t actually defined what the technology will be.

Ina Fried reports for Re/Code that T-Mobile recently announced its plans to start testing 5G technology, following the lead of rivals AT&T and Verizon. In addition to announcing the carrier’s 5G testing, T-Mobile chief technology officer Neville Ray said that all of the 5G talk from other major carriers, especially Verizon, is intended mostly as a distraction from the fact that T-Mobile has caught up with them on 4G and made significant subscribers gains thanks to an improved LTE network and its controversial choice to offer zero-rated video and music streaming.

While net neutrality advocates have criticized T-Mobile’s Binge On program, the carrier credits the service with boosting customer satisfaction and even increasing the number of users who upgraded their data plans, since the unlimited streaming feature of the Binge On program applies only to customers who have a monthly data plan of three gigabytes or more.

“They are trying to change the story,” Ray told Re/Code of rivals’ choice to shift the conversation to their 5G testing efforts. “Nothing they are doing is proprietary or unique.” Ray reiterated that what consumers will consider the arrival of 5G networks — the point at which they’ll be able to buy a compatible smartphone and run it on the network — won’t happen until 2020. But T-Mobile intends to be ready. “We’ll be right there with them or ahead,” Ray told Re/Code.

As Alex Wagner reports for TmoNews, Ray said on a recent earnings call that “I think we want to manage consumer expectations carefully, and make sure that folks understand that yeah, there’s going to be great 5G stuff with high speeds and really low latencies, but it’s going to be a while yet.” Ray also explained that T-Mobile has “significant spectrum holdings” in what the company believes will end up being 5G spectrum allocations. “We’re in a good spot,” he added.

Though 5G is still years away, and therefore not something you should be too excited about yet, that hasn’t stopped carriers from making claims about their future 5G networks, and sharing projections about the technology’s capabilities. Yoni Heisler reported for BGR that when Verizon announced its 5G testing efforts, it claimed that it’s going to be the first U.S. mobile carrier to support the standard. (Though you may not want to bet against Verizon just yet, considering how efficiently it implemented 4G LTE support relative to competitors like AT&T and Sprint.)

Jon Brodkin reports for Ars Technica that AT&T is testing an early version of a 5G network, which it says will be 10 to 100 times faster than LTE and could be used for home Internet service. A spokesperson told Ars Technica, “An early use of 5G’s underlying technology could be delivering broadband to homes and businesses, and it’s possible that we could have limited commercial availability this year depending on the trials.”

AT&T says that its early implementation of 5G will rely on millimeter waves, which are 30GHz and above and require line-of-sight connections. Brodkin notes that 5G will likely use the spectrum below 1GHz in order to connect areas that can’t be covered by extremely high frequencies. With speeds up to 100 times faster than what’s offered the average 4G LTE connection today, the 5G networks that AT&T wants to offer will give customers “speeds measured in gigabits per second, not megabits.”

In addition to bringing impressive speeds, 5G would also lower latency to about 1 to 5 milliseconds. Brodkin notes, however, that gigabit speeds would make it easier to blow through your data allotment, and AT&T currently only offers unlimited data to DirecTV or U-verse subscribers. LTE will remain AT&T’s primary network technology for a few years, but AT&T says it wants to be ready to switch to 5G once the technology standards are set by 3GPP, the international standards body. AT&T thinks that 3GPP “will likely complete the first phase of that process in 2018.”

Re/Code notes that U.S. carriers’ eagerness to get on board with 5G is part of “an intense battle among countries and technology companies looking to be the first to offer the technology.” 5G technology is expected to arrive first in home broadband, and then late run data-only devices like tablets, before making its way to smartphones in 2019 or 2020. Fried reports that the race toward 5G is “a geopolitical battle as well as a race among carriers.”

As standards bodies work to define the 5G standard, Fried notes that it’s possible that some companies will look to “jump the gun,” as was the case when several kinds of networks were sold to consumers as “4G” before the arrival of the LTE technology that came to define the current generation of networks. LTE is due for a speed boost, called LTE-Advanced-Plus, that some carriers may end up pitching as 5G.

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