Telco obsession with speed is growing in 5G era
Like petrolheads at a drag race, telecom operators love to rev their engines and brag about their top speeds.
So when the referees show up and pass judgement on performance, their publicity departments go into overdrive, pouring out frothy statements like podium champagne.
Several studies measuring UK operators on the speed and availability of their recently engineered 5G networks have collided on their way out of the telco press office, and into the email folders of spectating reporters.
BT has seized hold of the RootMetrics report prepared by IHS Markit as evidence it has a more widely available 5G service in London than any rival.
Vodafone is brandishing an alternative study by umlaut, a German testing company, which shows its London-based 5G service is the fastest.
Meanwhile, an international comparison of 5G speeds by OpenSignal, another market-research firm, ranks the UK behind 11 other countries on 5G download speeds and availability, despite Vodafone's depiction of the UK as a 5G pioneer.
The telco obsession with speed dates back to the launch of broadband services.
Overtaken by US technology firms in so many other fields, operators have been left honking about the one thing they do well – piping data to customers over the latest network technologies, and building those networks fast.
But in the world of mobile, speed looks far more important to the operators than it does to many of their customers.
In the home environment, most high-speed services today run over fixed-line broadband networks.
For all the talk of mobile virtual-reality gaming and other whizzy 5G applications, 5G network speeds are still way more than any commercial service actually requires. A high-definition video can be streamed perfectly well over a 4G network.
Despite its impressive credentials, 5G was supposed to make operators less fixated on speed and more like highly valued Internet companies.
In a blog published last week, Scott Petty, the chief technology officer of Vodafone UK, said the new technology would "redefine" his company in the next five years.
"We are becoming integrators and developers of applications, not just runners of networks," he wrote.
Few who lived through 3G and 4G, which promised similar application breakthroughs by service providers, will be convinced.
And far from curing operators of their obsession with metrics about latency and bandwidth, 5G appears to have made it even worse, as shown by the telco response to the RootMetrics and umlaut reports.
There are few signs of any real service innovation not led by US technology giants.
Little sign of change
None of this means network speed is unimportant, of course.
Countries that can offer the highest speeds stand more chance of attracting developers of advanced applications. One might turn out to be the 5G equivalent of Uber, a ride-hailing app that has flourished in the 4G era.
But operators have not been major beneficiaries of this earlier innovation, and will not profit in future unless they have a stake in the 5G applications that are born.
Simply investing in 5G networks will not turn operators into sleek and nimble technology developers.
What they need is a cultural reinvention that has proven elusive for years, as talented youngsters make a beeline for the latest Internet startup (or simply begin their own).
In the absence of their creativity, operators have spent the better part of two decades marketing connectivity speeds while promising that "transformation" is around the next bend.
Judging by the downward trend in share prices, few investors expect the ageing, speed-obsessed petrolheads of the telecom industry to change or disappear in the next five years.
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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading