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Everyone’s Dreaming of a Genuine 5G Wireless Network

Over the last few years, media outlets, in conjunction with wireless carriers themselves, have generated a great deal of hype surrounding 5G, the 5th generation of wireless standard. Based on all the excitement, it may seem as if widespread 5G implementation is a few months—maybe a few weeks or days—away.

The media and carriers have also gushed over 5G’s potential to revolutionize the way we live. From self-driving cars to holographic video; from augmented reality (AR)-assisted remote medical procedures to a host of products not yet dreamt of, the public narrative may sometimes leave the impression that, with just a flick of the switch, we’ll soon live in a world that resembles “The Jetsons.”

The Reality of Widespread 5G Implementation: It’s Complicated

In part two of this two-part series on 5G, we look at the mistaken idea that widespread adoption of true 5G is on the verge of revolutionizing the world. We’re not suggesting 5G isn’t on its way—it is. Our hope is to distinguish between 5G’s potential, should it ever completely mature, and what 5G is now and will be in its early years.

What is 5G?

The first generation of cellular standard emerged in the 1980s. With first-generation networks, users could make wireless voice calls cellphone to cellphone or cellphone to landline. Second-generation wireless (2G) became dominant in the 1990s and remained the global standard into the early 2000s. 2G introduced digitized voice-to-voice signals, digitally encrypted calls, vastly improved coverage and text messaging. The third generation wireless standard (3G) delivered internet service to wireless devices.

Fourth-generation (4G) networks—the current standard—offer superior signal quality, penetration, dependability and speed. 4G also introduced the concept of LTE (long term evolution), an add-on spec indicating that 4G technology is intended to progress over time as carriers improve and augment existing networks. 5G is the next wireless standard. Telecommunications companies are presently developing and testing 5G and have even launched some preliminary networks, which we discuss below.

The 5G Revolution is NOT Already Upon Us

Some of the misperceptions and confusion regarding the widespread adoption of true 5G come compliments of AT&T. As a telecommunications behemoth, this company has a vested interest in building 5G awareness and hype. It has an even bigger interest in grabbing 5G market share ahead of competitors and in April 2017 launched “5GE.” The E stands for “Evolution,” a word evoking LTE and suggesting 5GE is an early version of a genuine 5G wireless network.

In March 2019, mobile-marketing research firm OpenSignal put 5GE to the test against 4G LTE Advanced networks (the latest 4G technology) from T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint. In that test, 5GE finished third in speed against those cutting-edge 4G networks, with Sprint coming in last. In February, Sprint filed suit against AT&T for violating laws that prohibit false advertising and deceptive acts and practices.

In January, AT&T also began rolling out software updates to smartphones indicating when a 4G device connects to a 5GE network. For true 5G, network-specific antennas are required and hence, a network-specific device, meaning no current 4G phone has 5G capabilities (another obstacle to the widespread adoption of true 5G). 5GE, then, is not a genuine 5G wireless network. Rather, AT&T appears to be labeling its own 4G LTE Advanced network as “5GE,” hoping to convince consumers the company is far ahead of its competition in regards to widespread 5G implementation. With a major player like AT&T practicing such confusing marketing, is it any wonder consumers (and media) are confused regarding 5G and its largescale deployment?

5G: A Transformation Not Quite Ready for Primetime

If AT&T’s 5GE network is a marketing ploy, when will we see widespread adoption of true 5G networks? It’s difficult to answer this question with certainty. Each of the major carriers has different 5G rollout strategies, with varying plans for implementing the underlying technologies to build the standard to full potential. We’ve already begun seeing the rollout of some limited 5G networks, and this will continue in the years ahead.

Verizon Wireless: Mod-Based 5G

On April 3, Verizon turned power on in Chicago and Minneapolis to the world’s first genuine 5G wireless network. Far from amounting to widespread 5G implementation, however, this network is limited to coverage in only small, selected sections of both cities. Additionally, consumers in the test areas can only receive Verizon’s 5G signal on Motorola’s Moto Z3 smartphone, retailing for between $350 to $500. Z3 owners must pay another $100 to $300 for a special “mod” add-on that enables the phone to receive 5G signals.

Verizon only offers 5G to existing customers, who must pay an extra $10 monthly. The company has announced plans to expand its genuine 5G wireless network to 30 cities by the end of 2019 but hasn’t yet announced which cities or dates. Plus, based on early reviews of Verizon mobile 5G, the product itself has a way to go—to say the least—before it can be regarded as a widespread adoption of true 5G.

AT&T: Hotspot 5G

AT&T, meanwhile, despite its misadventure into 5GE, has been working on a genuine 5G wireless network for some time, but it, too, is limited. To date, the company’s 5G tests haven’t been designed to deliver individual wireless service. Instead, AT&T has been experimenting with mobile 5G hotspots that cover limited areas in 19 cities. The company has, however, announced plans for authentic, widespread adoption of true 5G to begin sometime in the first quarter of 2020.

T-Mobile: Widespread 5G Implementation At a Lower Wavelength

T-Mobile spent much of 2018 working diligently to build out the backbone of its own version of a genuine 5G wireless network. The catch is that the self-styled “uncarrier” is building its network on the 600 MHz wireless band, which, as a sub-1 GHz radio wave, is classified as “low-band” spectrum. To this point, Verizon and AT&T have been focused on high-band band spectrum, in the millimeter-wave range (generally 28 GHz and higher). Millimeter-length radio waves can carry far more data than low-band, at far lower latencies, but low band delivers bigger coverage areas and vastly superior penetration.

T-Mobile plans to launch its 5G network in 30 US cities sometime in the second half of 2019, with widespread 5G implementation to commence sometime in 2020. The company has stressed, however, that upon initial launch, the speeds and latencies of T-Mobile 5G will be modest compared to the 1Gbps-and-higher speeds and ultra-low latencies promoted by Verizon and AT&T. The company has stressed that it will continue building and enhancing its technology far into the future, incorporating mid- and high-band coverage technologies and creating a fully-realized, genuine 5G wireless network over time.

Sprint 5G: Mid-Band Maven

In the U.S., Sprint is king of mid-band spectrum. The company plans to launch its 5G network on the 2.5GHz wavelength in nine test cities in 2019—four in May and five sometime in the second half of the year. This is the same spectrum the company uses for its 4G network, but Sprint owns so much of this bandwidth that, with equipment upgrades, it can splice the signal in two—one for 4G, one for 5G.

In terms of data capacity and latency numbers, mid-range signals—as their designation suggests—fall between high- and low-range frequencies. This means Sprint’s initial 5G rollouts may not be as fast as those from Verizon and AT&T, but will probably offer greater coverage and dependability, offering a more robust widespread 5G implementation by comparison. On the other hand, while Sprint’s speed and latency will be greater than T-Mobile’s, the uncarrier’s network will probably provide wider coverage areas and greater dependability.

A Note on the Proposed Sprint-T-Mobile Merger

T-Mobile and Sprint are currently awaiting approval to merge from the U.S. Department of Justice. Both companies have said that this merger would create powerful synergies for quicker, widespread adoption of true 5G on a nationwide scale.

Small Cells = Bigger, More Powerful 5G

Regardless of the outcome of the proposed T-Mobile-Sprint merger, robust, widespread 5G implementation wherein the technology reaches full potential, will require all four carriers to build nationwide networks of “small cell” low-power transmitters. Placed closely together, in great density, these high-band base stations can, in time, improve 5G’s coverage and penetration through the millimeter-wave spectrum. Additionally, carriers will also use beamforming, another technology for increasing 5G’s stability, dependability and penetration in conjunction with small-cell equipment.

Our 5G Future Isn’t Here, But It’s Coming—Gradually

All the technologies mentioned here, deployed in conjunction over time, will help make widespread adoption of true 5G a reality, while building the technology to its full potential. However, readers waiting for a world defined by self-driving cars, holographic video, AR-assisted remote medical procedures and a host of futuristic products not yet dreamt of, will probably need to wait another five to 10 years before such a world begins taking shape. Even then, there’s no guarantee of what will or won’t be possible or of what will or won’t catch on.

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