Are Carriers Killing 5G Craving and Caring?

We’ve all seen the ads. 5G is here! It’s the cellular Superman! It’s faster than a speeding bullet! It can end buffering with its bare hands! It’ll leap digital downloads in a single bound!

But 5G in its current forms isn’t the super hero of cellular. It’s more like a schizophrenic Justice League. Each of the four (soon to be three) major U.S. carriers—AT&T, Sprint/T-Mobile and Verizon—deploy different 5G technologies at different low- , mid- and high-band frequencies, resulting in radically different 5G propagation patterns, radically different 5G coverage and range characteristics, and radically different “5G” speeds. And some of these “5G” technologies aren’t even 5G. Adding to the 5G complexity is that some carriers are rolling out different flavors of 5G in different markets.

For instance, Verizon’s 5G, now available in select locations in 34 cities, employs high-band so-called millimeter wave (mmWave) technology that delivers 1Gbps (1 gig) speeds, but only if you’re a few hundred feet from the cell tower—and only if the phone can “see” the cell tower since mmWave can’t penetrate walls.

AT&T similarly is deploying high-band mmWave “5G+” service, but also is rolling-out lower-speed/wider range sub-6GHz low-band 5G service that it hopes will be available nationwide sometime this year. Adding to its 5G Tower of Babble, AT&T is promoting what it calls 5G Evolution, aka 5GE, which is NOT 5G, but enables “faster speeds on our existing LTE network—up to 2x faster than standard LTE.” AT&T’s 5G/5GE nomenclature shell game continues to attract outrage, and reportedly is actually slower than standard 4G LTE is some places.

Conversely, T-Mobile already has launched “nationwide” 5G over its sub-6GHz spectrum, which enables wider, more standard 4G LTE-like coverage, but speeds are only around 20 percent faster than its current 4G LTE—”not the 5G we were promised,” as one wag noted.

Sprint is offering more of a speed/range compromise with its 5G, deployed over the soon-to-be extinct carrier’s mid-band 2.5GHz spectrum. Sprint’s 5G has wider coverage than Verizon’s 5G mmWave network, but isn’t as fast and is available in fewer cities.

While T-Mobile and Sprint executives claim their merged entity (dubbed New T-Mobile for the time being) promises a faster build out of the combined companies’ mmWave 5G network, nothing is guaranteed. And once the combined T-Mobile/Sprint 5G network is built out, exactly what will the New T-Mobile label its faster mmWave 5G service since it already calls its current service 5G? New 5G? Remember—rhat modifier infamously didn’t exactly do Coke any good.

Too Much 5G Too Soon?

So carriers are promoting around a half dozen different types of 5G, each of which performs and acts differently depending on carrier deployment, location and application.

Now you need a 5G handset. Except, only two 5G handsets—the pending (and expensive) Samsung Galaxy S20+ and S20 Ultra—are compatible with both the sub-6GHz and mmWave versions of 5G, at least in the U.S. (Although, admittedly, this 5G handset cross-carrier incompatibility is only an issue if someone with a first-gen 5G phone down the road wants to switch from one 5G carrier to another; one assumes the new carrier will provide a generous trade-in in return for a new subscriber—but I digress). 5G handset compatibility confusion may lessened in the coming months, but there isn’t any concrete sign of that yet. And how Apple will dive into the current non-compatible 5G cesspool with different carrier- or frequency-specific 5G models this fall, or with an iPhone compatible with all 5G technologies and frequencies, or something in between, is an open question.

So, considering the confusion surrounding initial 5G carrier rollouts, high-end 5G handsets and 5G claims, was it wrong to start rolling out “5G” before it was ready for prime time—or even comprehension?

From a carrier and handset maker POV, probably not. 5G development has been an expensive proposition for carriers. Each has invested billions (with a “b”) of dollars in 5G spectrum and physical infrastructure. So, carriers can’t be blamed for wanting to not only see some return on these investments. They want to build excitement for when 5G becomes more cross-carrier compatible, ubiquitous and understandable.

Regardless of these schizophrenic 5G caveats, thus far, all the talk about 5G has induced drooling from the digital glitterati one percent and head-scratching “but what is 5G?” from the other 99 percent. For instance, carriers are already or soon will be rolling out both mobile 5G for mobile phones and fixed 5G for improved home Wi-Fi or last-mile home internet connectivity, adding to the 5G “What is it?” confusion.

The metaphorical tsunami of “5G” promotion from carriers, mobile phone makers, chip suppliers, modem/router vendors, auto industry and the titillated tech nerd next door is literally swamping consumer ability to absorb and understand what 5G is, what 5G does, and what 5G could and will do. If carriers don’t cool their 5G acclaim, confusion could counter and cool consumer 5G craving—or caring.