Don’t hold your breath for 5G in 2020

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By Isaac Brown

I bought a new phone at Verizon a few weeks ago – the sales rep wasted no time trying to convince me to buy a 5G-compatible phone. I live in Denver, and I asked where 5G was available in Denver. The rep said “at the Pepsi Center”, like that was a good reason to buy the phone. I asked when 5G would roll out across Denver and greater Colorado, and I got a shrug. I did not buy a 5G phone. Apparently the 5G connectivity can’t even hit all of the Pepsi Center.

Carriers, device manufacturers, and media outlets talk about 5G like it’s already here… but where is it? Research firms report that South Korea is in the lead, with ~10% of its mobile network subscribers using 5G. Switzerland and Kuwait appear next in line per capita. China has a decent number of subscribers, but this is peanuts compared to the overall population.

The media is hyping tons of roll-outs across major cities in North America and Europe, but when you read between the lines, the coverage is bad, and 5G connectivity is only supported on the newest most expensive devices – which are often specific to individual carriers.

In 2016, clients were hiring my previous employer (Lux Research) for 5G market assessments, and to decide whether they should be developing 5G architectures for their products (IoT sensors, connected cars, etc). That was 4 years ago, and since then I have seen precisely ZERO deployments of new technologies on 5G networks – besides mobile phones in select countries for enhanced Netflix-ing.

People talk about 5G as a key enabling technology for autonomous vehicles – capable of delivering the transmission speed and latency for rapid autonomous decision-making. That said, there is no use case in which a car would ever use a wireless network to make a critical low-latency decision (too risky). 5G instead might be relevant for connected car use cases like navigation, routing, traffic, weather, entertainment, etc… but 4G can do all that stuff anyways.

In the past 18 months, at least 10 different Fortune 500 manufacturers have told me tales of AT&T planning to roll out 5G networks in their factories for machine connectivity, among other use cases – this is apparently something AT&T is pitching to manufacturers. But none of them have moved forward, and I don’t think AT&T can deliver it, even if you were committed to buying it from them.

Let’s take a step back and provide some context: 5G literally means the fifth-generation technology standard for mobile networks. It is the successor to 4G, and promises significant performance improvements, largely in the form of data transmission speed increases and latency reductions. This is accomplished by using higher frequency radio waves, among other engineering techniques.

Data transmission speed indicates how long it takes to download data to a device. Verizon published a guide on the evolution of mobile network speeds here: The first generation mobile networks (“1G”) in the 80s had maximum speeds of about 2.4 Kbps. 2G networks in the early 90s reached speeds of 50 Kbps. 3G enabled stationary devices to achieve speeds of 2 Mbps, while devices in moving vehicles could reach 384 Kbps. 4G is 500 times faster than 3G – released in the late 2000s, 4G can deliver speeds in the 100s of Mbps for stationary devices, and in the 10s of Mbps for moving devices.

High-performance 5G should deliver speeds in the Gbps range – this is comparable to fixed-line internet speeds. So far, the existing 5G commercial roll-outs have largely seen speeds in the mid 100s of Mbps, but test networks and labs can achieve greater than 1 Gbps speed. The theoretical limit for 5G technology is supposed to be 10 Gbps (I’m not holding my breath to see that speed reached in practical applications).

Reduction in latency is another key performance improvement delivered by 5G. Latency is the time it takes for a request from your device to reach the closest tower, travel from the tower to an information server, travel back from the server to the tower, and then be sent back to your device. Latency is important for applications like gaming, where rapid response time is essential.

The numbers vary depending on the source, but 4G networks have average latencies in the tens of milliseconds, I’m generally seeing figures in the 25 – 100 millisecond range. In lab/test environments, 5G is capable of delivering latencies of 1 – 2 milliseconds; commercial roll-outs appear to be clocking in the ~10 millisecond range. Theoretically, 5G tech should be able to deliver latencies less than 1 millisecond someday (again, not holding my breath).

There are other relevant parameters we could compare, but speed and latency are generally viewed as the most important. Someday, 5G should practically deliver order of magnitude improvements over 4G in terms of both speed and latency. I’ll spend more time on other technical aspects in a future post.

So why does it matter? Application areas for 5G deserve their own full article, but I can quickly share a framework from the International Telecommunication Union Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R) – I’ll quote this report directly, since I see it cited frequently:

The high speeds and low latency promised by 5G will propel societies into a new age of smart cities and the Internet of Things (IoT). Industry stakeholders have identified several potential use cases for 5G networks, and the ITU-R has defined three important categories of these:

  • Enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) – enhanced indoor and outdoor broadband, enterprise collaboration, augmented and virtual reality. 
  • Massive machine-type communications (mMTC) – IoT, asset tracking, smart agriculture, smart cities, energy monitoring, smart home, remote monitoring. 
  • Ultra-reliable and low-latency communications (URLLC) – autonomous vehicles, smart grids, remote patient monitoring and telehealth, industrial automation.

Perhaps a bit verbose, but seems to be a logical way to frame the application areas for 5G.

In summary, 5G is not nearly as mature as some stakeholders pretend it is, but it will likely be an important technology for a range of use cases, both consumer and enterprise. Nobody should expect to leverage 5G on a global scale for many years. It will be essential to rely on existing standards (4G, LoRa, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, etc) for the foreseeable future – whether for connected cars, infrastructure sensors, or digital factories. But it would behoove interested parties to have 5G on their long-term roadmaps.

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