DENVER -- Big 5G Event -- Roughly five years ago, the global wireless industry touted 5G as something that we wouldn't see until around 2020. And then everyone got 5G fever.
As a result, wireless engineers -- spurred on by the whips of their paycheck signatories -- finalized a barebones version of the 5G standard in 2017 so that operators like SK Telecom and AT&T could get to market more than a year ahead of that initial schedule.
But now, here in the middle of 2019, today's 5G networks in the US don't inspire much confidence.
Verizon, for its part, was so desperate for 5G that it created its own 5G standard, 5GTF, so it could launch fixed wireless services to a handful of customers last year. Much of that equipment is going to be replaced with 3GPP-compliant equipment when Verizon restarts its fixed wireless buildout later this year.
Separately, Verizon in February launched mobile 5G services on the 3GPP standard in two markets across a handful of sites, with coverage that earned decidedly middling reviews. Likely as a result, Verizon has backtracked a bit on its plan to charge 5G customers an extra $10 per month to access the service.
But at least Verizon has been upfront about its early 5G efforts. AT&T boasted it was "first" to 5G with a launch of the service in a dozen markets at the end of last year. That "launch" is pretty much anything but, considering AT&T is offering the laughable pricing plan of $70 per month for 15GB of data and isn't actually selling the service to regular customers. Instead, AT&T's 5G network, now "available" in 19 markets, can only be used by "select" customers who are probably either employed by AT&T or are related to those who are.
AT&T, understanding its somewhat precarious position in these early days of 5G, also decided to throw the marketing equivalent of a smoke grenade at the problem by changing the LTE icon on a bunch of its phones to one that said "5G E."
Beyond such shenanigans, there's also evidence of the 5G rush job in the network core. Today's 5G operators are generally using the "non standalone" (NSA) version of 5G. This version of 5G runs off a 4G core and therefore it doesn't support fancy services like advanced network slicing. Verizon has said it hopes to move to a shiny new 5G core within the next year or two, though Ibrahim Gedeon, CTO at Canadian operator Telus, worried that his decision to embrace NSA really means that he's going to be stuck milking a 4G core for another decade.
And what of the other fancy features of 5G, like massive IoT and ultra low latency? Specifications for those technologies are scheduled for availability in -- wait for it -- 2020, when the 3GPP's Release 16 is scheduled to be finished.
"We believe the current investment opportunity associated with 5G is limited and unlikely to drive meaningful incremental upside for companies involved considering the mature state of the smartphone market," wrote the analysts at Wall Street research firm Cowen in a recent note to investors.
But congratulations are in order
All that said, bringing 5G into the real world in 2019 has given us important insights into two key areas: The 5G NR transmission standard and millimeter-wave spectrum.
The 5G NR transmission standard is the actual wireless part of the whole thing: It's the invisible magic that moves data through the air from a phone to a receiver, like a cell tower. 5G NR works, and it works pretty well. Meaning, it's at least twice as fast as LTE, with much lower latency. That's not revolutionary by itself, but it's a big piece of the puzzle. Did I mention it works?
The other big lesson we've learned this year is that millimeter-wave spectrum can be used for mobile, commercial services. This is important because, up until recently, it was considered mostly "junk" spectrum that was only good for applications such as backhaul. Adding a millimeter-wave option to today's wireless networks is like adding electric scooter options in downtown Denver: They help you get around quickly and easily in urban areas, but they're not much good in the suburbs.
But 5G NR and millimeter wave are just two elements in a much broader 5G story. The Cowen analysts describe "true" 5G as a network that couples NR transmissions across all kinds of devices and spectrum bands leveraging everything from edge computing to network slicing.
"Today's marketing hype around mobile 5G is tied to speed and the promise that devices (primarily phones) will be faster than the previous generation and ignores the two other 5G key performance indicators including latency and connected devices," the Cowen analysts wrote. "True 5G will require a significant investment in the network core, edge computing, and a small cell/fiber network as 'true' 5G will further blur the delineation between wireless and wireline. True 5G will usher in new applications/use cases similar to how 4G helped to create Lyft."
This kind of "true 5G" is probably five to ten years away, considering it will be contingent on operators and others figuring out solutions to some seriously complex obstacles. But it's nonetheless possible. And potentially it's a big deal.