As the Editorial Director for 5G & Mobile Strategies here at Light Reading, I try to follow the wireless industry pretty closely. I guess that's why they pay me (it's certainly not for the dad jokes).
So, when my boss, Phil Harvey, asked me to put this list together, I thought to myself, "That Phil sure is a super cool dude, and so handsome too!"
And then I thought: "Wait, what?"
Regardless, here it is: The biggest 5G moments from the past year, as compiled by Light Reading's editorial staff (with an emphasis on the US market because that's where I live, deal with it). These are in no particular order, but they are definitely, objectively and irrefutably the correct selections and not at all arbitrary. Not at all. Mainly because this list is the product of at least five beers, which I've found is the amount of beer needed for things to start to make sense again.
1: Dish launches 5G
After more than a decade of collecting spectrum licenses of all shapes and sizes, Dish Network this month flipped the switch on its open RAN 5G network. Yes, there remain plenty of unanswered questions about the company's strategy, particularly regarding how it plans to entice tens of millions of new retail customers while simultaneously generating billions of dollars in profit from sales of 5G to enterprises. Nonetheless, the fact that the company is on its way to becoming a fourth nationwide 5G provider is certainly noteworthy. Further reading:
2: 5G pricing gets wiggly
The advent of 5G brought several major developments to the wireless industry, but one of the biggest was the shift to unlimited service pricing. Regular customers no longer had to count GBs in fear of massive overage charges. But now, 5G pricing is getting weird again. First, all the big 5G providers in the US have adopted a good-better-best approach to pricing designed to encourage customers to buy their most expensive plans. More recently, that pricing has gotten even funkier with price hikes ostensibly driven by inflation. The situation has even sparked some companies to introduce "price locks" in response as protection against inflation increases. Bottom line: The price of 5G remains a moving target. Further reading:
- AT&T's price increase could send customers to Verizon
- Here's how AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile slice and dice 5G plans and pricing
3: 5G crashes airplanes
The launch of midband C-band 5G in the US was supposed to be cause for celebration. After collectively spending more than $80 billion on C-band spectrum licenses, the nation's operators (primarily Verizon but also AT&T) were undoubtedly keen to put those licenses to use. Then, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) stepped in. The FAA and airline officials warned that 5G near airports could literally crash airplanes, due to interference between 5G cell towers and aircraft altimeters. The situation was poorly handled by all involved, and resulted in a giant black eye for the wireless industry. Further, interference discussions appear set to drag on throughout 2022. Further reading:
- How the launch of 'real' 5G turned into an unmitigated PR disaster
- FAA, wireless carriers hash out problems with C-band, altimeters
4: The rise of midband spectrum and the fall of mmWave
When AT&T, Verizon and, to a lesser extent, T-Mobile first launched their 5G networks in 2018, they touted the move as a dramatic step forward for the world's telecommunications industry. The truth, though, was a bit more nuanced. Initial 5G launches were on millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum bands, and transmissions in those bands generally don't cover much geographic territory. The results were speedy 5G networks unavailable to most Americans. Today, that situation is changing thanks to the FCC's recent midband spectrum auctions, coupled with T-Mobile's buildout of Sprint's midband 2.5GHz spectrum licenses. Regardless, the situation has left a cloud over a technology that was overhyped in its early days. Further reading:
- Verizon covers 0.5% of Americans with mmWave 5G – analysts
- Get ready for 'Phase 3' of 5G in the US
- The age of mmWave 5G sputters to a dusty death
5: Rogers and Shaw usher in Succession-level drama
The megamerger between Rogers and Shaw in Canada has been billed as a way to supercharge 5G throughout the country. However, drama almost immediately settled over the proceedings after the Rogers family descended into backbiting over control of the company. The whole situation drew strong parallels to the HBO series Succession, which also involves a family fighting for control over a media conglomerate. Incredibly, Succession star Brian Cox even supplied a video to Rogers Chairman Edward Rogers for his role in ousting the company's former CEO. But the drama isn't over yet: Regulators have blocked Rogers' bid for Shaw due to competitive concerns over its Freedom Mobile 5G business. Further reading:
- Rogers, Shaw announce $20.8B merger aimed at 5G dominance in Canada
- 'Succession' star records colorful commentary on Rogers drama
- Canada objects to Rogers' $20.1B marriage to Shaw
6: The allure of Helium
Helium's story touches plenty of hot topics: 5G, unlicensed spectrum, IoT, private networks, eSIM, cryptocurrency and the blockchain. But at its core, Helium offers the tantalizing prospect of a user-funded network buildout, mainly because the company has a mechanism to reward regular people for installing their own Helium hotspots. Helium got its start with a LoRa network for Internet of Things (IoT) services but is now working on pivoting into 5G. Whether the offering will be successful is still unclear, but Helium remains a much-discussed company in the industry. Further reading:
- Could Helium finally succeed where so many others failed?
- Helium aims to be 'largest cellular network' in US
7: Rakuten and its Symphony
Japan's Rakuten continues to confound. The company made waves in 2018 when it promised to build a new wireless network in Japan. It made waves again when it launched that network using open RAN technologies. Today, Rakuten is causing another stir with its new Symphony business, which basically promises to put all of the company's wireless learnings into a package that can be sold to other network operators, enterprises, government agencies or other customers all over the world that want to follow in Rakuten's footsteps and build their own wireless network. Further reading:
- Rakuten's 4G rollout is holding up a 5G push
- With $3B in bookings, Rakuten Symphony makes big app store pitch
- Rakuten says losses to shrink, eyeing 10,000-site 5G rollout in 2022
8: AT&T heads into Microsoft's cloud
Hyperscalers like Amazon, Google and Microsoft have made no secret of their desire to win telecom business. That effort initially centered on getting telecom providers to put their IT operations into the cloud, but has recently progressed toward the idea of also putting core network operations into the cloud. Dish Network and Rakuten have already done so, but most incumbent telecom providers have been reluctant to take that step. This is why AT&T's agreement with Microsoft – to shift its core 5G network operations into Microsoft's Azure cloud – is so important. Although some critics argue that the move essentially shifts the balance of power in Microsoft's favor, others contend that a complete shift to the cloud is inevitable in virtually every industry, including telecom. Further reading:
9: Ukraine, Huawei and the splinternet
Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine sent shockwaves across the world for a wide range of reasons. In telecom, it has forced companies to pick sides. Some, like Ericsson, Intel and Nokia, have loudly withdrawn from Russia in protest of the country's offensive. But others, like Huawei and Mavenir, have mostly kept silent. And, beyond these are-they or aren't-they questions, Russia's invasion also helps to firm up the possibility of a broader fracturing of the global Internet along geopolitical lines. Dubbed the "splinternet," this concept of an Internet divided along geopolitical boundaries feels more possible with every passing day. Further reading:
- Nokia shows why Russia is a bog for Western tech firms
- Ukraine has made Huawei even more toxic for European telcos
- Preparing for the splinternet
10: Fixed wireless access arrives
As speedy 5G networks crop up around the world, the next big question is: What new lines of business will they enable? Based on efforts by operators including T-Mobile and Verizon, the answer appears to center on fixed wireless access (FWA). Although FWA promises to draw much more heavily on wireless network resources than smartphones ever could, operators, including those in the US, are moving to use their extra 5G network capacity to move into the market for home broadband by beaming Internet connections into customers' homes and offices. It's unclear how this development might ultimately affect existing wired cable, fiber and DSL providers. However, it certainly represents a major new talking point for 5G providers hoping to convince investors that their spectrum purchases and network buildout expenses are sensible. Further reading:
- Is 2022 the year FWA actually starts to threaten cable?
- Thoughts on the evolving battle among US fiber, cable and 5G providers