Comparing 5G Progress Against Expectations

5G carries a heavy burden of promises. 5G truly is one of the important next waves in innovation. With any new deployment, there could always be some rough edges in early performance.

As with many new communications technologies, promoters tend to be overly optimistic when describing the speed, capacity, latency, coverage, available hardware and cost. Now that there are small area 5G rollouts in place, we can gauge the actual performance and what needs to be upgraded in successive versions. So far, the 5G performance in actual rollouts appears to be similar to the 5G standards, but refinements are still needed.

Craig Moffett says 5G is highly unlikely to be available everywhere because there is insufficient spectrum allocated to make that possible. The spectrum planned for 5G use includes a mix of spectrum bands. For example, high-band spectrum (28GHz and 39GHz ranges), can used for high speeds in densely populated urban areas, but those high frequencies cannot pierce walls or doors. Low band spectrum (below 1 GHz) has been used for broadband but could be redeployed to perform 5G tasks that require service over greater distances (or through materials).

Mid band spectrum is in the 3.4 GHz to 7 GHz range, and in many countries, some of it is already occupied by users (e.g. military and satellite operators). The process of relocating current users and assigning spectrum to those who will make the best public use of it takes time, and until those regulatory proceedings are complete, it is premature to make some of the investments that 5G networks need. It is very important that this spectrum gets redeployed to its highest and best use, if deployment is to stay on track.

In an early rollout in Chicago, Verizon’s 5G download speed was measured at 762Mbps with a latency of 19ms. In these early rollouts, the footprint tends to be small with very few customers using the new technology, because phones are only now penetrating the market. So far there is only one or two 5G handset models available, but that will change very quickly.

It is becoming clear that, at least initially, 5G networks may be available only in dense urban areas. For rural areas, the short distance that high band spectrum covers means that many antennas and commensurate backhaul fiber (or point-to-point wireless circuits) is needed to cover big swaths of territory. That high amount of investment would be needed to serve even the low density of customers in a rural area, and the economic result would be a non-viable network. Verizon is set to invest $18 to $19 billion in 5G during 2019, AT&T has committed significant investment as well, and T-Mobile has made a point to commit to rural areas as well as urban.

One factor that may be slowing the global rollout for 5G is the cyber threat that is posed by ZTE and by Huawei. There is a strong risk of stealthy spying wherever those Chinese equipment makers are permitted to place their designs for core network equipment in a country’s public network. That concern is especially true for 5G equipment. An accommodation might be to allow for inexpensive handsets from Huawei, while enforcing the ban on Huawei and ZTE core equipment.

The bottom line is that deployment is now underway, handsets are just now coming online, and the need for more 5G spectrum is as dire as ever.