The US’s early 5G launches suffer from teething troubles

The almost inevitable backlash against 5G hype may be starting, as rumors swirled last week that Verizon was struggling to sell its 5G Home fixed broadband replacement service; while an event in Hawaii, billed as the first real world test for mobile 5G, flopped dismally.

These could be said to be teething troubles or little local difficulties, but still underline a wider sense that 5G is being misrepresented and rolled out too quickly, taking precedence over more pressing issues of coverage, price and consistency.

5G is more of a roadmap than a single ‘G’, comprising a range of technologies under the banners of higher bandwidth and lower latency. However, in these early days, it has to a large extent been hijacked by operators desperate to reverse falling revenues or customer numbers, and the infrastructure vendors such as Ericsson and Nokia – all eager to start the 5G ball rolling as early as possible, and arguably before it is ready to deliver anything more than 4G already can.

In September, Verizon’s announced 5G Home, based on its so called Ultrawideband 5G network in 28 GHz, with access initially confined to the four US metropolises of Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Sacramento. But the sheen of being first to something approaching 5G was always goin to wear off quickly. The principle problem was that the 300Mbps service, priced at $50 a month for Verizon Wireless customers and $70 for others, would be likely, on average, to cost more than the guaranteed service at the same speed Verizon already sold on fiber to non-wireless subscribers.

We questioned whether this would entice half a million customers to throw out a perfectly good Comcast DOCSIS 3.1 line that actually delivers 1Gbps all the time.

Apart from being confined to fixed broadband replacement, Verizon’s boast of being first to launch a commercial 5G service was a stretch because it was based on its homegrown pre-standard version called 5G TF (though Verizon has a near term roadmap to transition to fully standardized 5G NR).

AT&T will be the first to fully mobile 5G services (see separate item), but it has suffered teething troubles of its own, as well as delays after promising to launch 5G in 19 cities sometime towards the end of 2018.

Meanwhile, both Verizon and AT&T, along with their vendors and others, suffered a setback at the Qualcomm Snapdragon Technology Summit early this month on the Hawaiian island of Maui, in an event billed as the coming out party for full speed 5G. It was supposed to be the first scaled-up real world trial featuring equipment from the leading vendors, but it underperformed so badly none of the participants attempted to disguise the fact. Instead they tried to save face by disingenuously claiming it was just to demonstrate use cases rather than speeds.

But it was supposed to be all about the speed, as well as low latency. The main concern was that while Qualcomm’s newly announced Snapdragon 855 processor featuring in the equipment is certainly capable of multi-gigabit speeds, and its predecessors over LTE networks have already crossed the 400Mbps barrier, in this case the 39 GHz millimeter wave 5G network only ran at 140Mbps. This was according to Ericsson, which set up the trial network for both Verizon and AT&T, but then said that the 100 MHz spectrum provided was not enough, especially with so little time to test and optimize it. Latency was also disappointing, although again that would be improved with more spectrum.

Such hiccups serve to support the arguments advanced in a little book published two years ago by Professor William Webb called ‘The 5G Myth: And why consistent connectivity is a better future’. He argued that the urgency to deploy 5G was driven entirely by commercial considerations when consumers and enterprises would be much better served by a focus on consistency and coverage.

Still, the good news is that there is plenty of time for 5G to evolve and adapt to demands, because it will arrive more gradually than the likes of Verizon would like. It will be years before we can talk about an all 5G network and it will arrive on a patchwork basis and critical applications will require fallback to 4G or even WiFi precisely because of poor coverage. There are signs of this already, not so much in Verizon’s 5G Home which does not meet a pressing demand, but perhaps in Vodafone’s prospective commercial 5G services slated for launch in mid-2019. The operator provoked some surprise when it announced that this would be available in some of the UK’s most rural areas in Cornwall and Cumbria as part of a plan to provide much better coverage in remote regions by leapfrogging straight to the latest cellular technology.