5G’s Historically Bizarre Rollout

Technology rollouts are often messy. Multiple vendors propose competing (and often incompatible) variations in the hope of capturing the golden ticket to new market dominance. Entrenched interests campaign, lobby against or even legally threaten their eventual replacement. Technology misunderstanding or misrepresentation, plus chicken/egg content vs. hardware imbalance, often stall consumer adoption. Copycats flood the market creating an unsustainable market over-saturation. The bubble eventually bursts, leaving a trail of destruction of few winners and many losers.

You know… the usual.

But 5G’s comparatively smooth rollout voyage seems to have sailed into a perfect storm of historically bizarre circumstances. While the eventuality of the whole 5G enterprise may be unaffected in the long term, these bizarre circumstances will likely slow down some aspects of the rollout.

Normally, the first high wave to hit is technology schizophrenia. Cellular 5G transmission has not one, but two, types of signal distribution: sub-6GHz and mmWave, a split personality we discussed a few months ago. Dueling technologies is a familiar scenario, especially for cellular. Back in the early-mid 1990s, TDMA, CDMA and GSM waged a three-way battle for cellular market prominence. A decade ago, there was the kerfuffle over which of the myriad competing carrier technologies—Verizon’s LTE-Advanced, AT&T’s HSPA, Sprint’s WiMax, T-Mobile’s MyTouch 4G, HSPA+ and WirelessMAN Advanced—were considered true “4G.”  AT&T has now been slapped down by an advertising review board for similar claims for 5G.

The two 5G alternatives, sub-6 vs. mmWave, might create a worse problem than previous platform conflicts. While all the competing standards and “4G variations” perform similarly and are largely continent or carrier siloed, all carriers include either or both sub-6 and mmWave capabilities in handsets. Additionally, each of them display distinctive propagation and performance characteristics. The stark distinctions and differences between sub-6 and mmWave might be difficult for consumers to grok.

5G Geopolitics

In all events, the 5G industry wishes all it had to deal with was sub-6 vs. mmWave. But geopolitics is now a 5G issue thanks to three-way tussle between the U.S., Europe and China, with Huawei acting as the fulcrum.

While the giant Chinese company is at the center of a U.S. led geopolitical national-security debate and is a star player in the U.S. tariff trade war against China, Huawei is the undisputed leader in 5G development and infrastructure rollout.

All of which leaves the U.S. and its allies between a geopolitical rock and an economic hard place.

Following the U.S. lead in limiting Huawei as an infrastructure provider means potentially stalling 5G deployments or deploying less advanced technology. It could also mean economically alienating the Chinese government, which no one wants to do. Accepting Huawei technology also means accepting potential national security risks but maintaining stable Sino economic relations, and risking availability of U.S. economic and military support.  Most of the world has opted for the former, and willing to risk the latter.


Health, of course, in the form of COVID-19, represents perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the 5G rollout.

The pandemic’s short-term impact has been delays in 5G deployments for some carriers. In a late April earnings call, AT&T noted that COVID-19 has slightly delayed rollouts of the carrier’s sub-6 network build-out. Even Huawei, along with Ericsson and Nokia, noted that COVID-19 has delayed many European 5G deployments, along with many European spectrum auctions to free up space for 5G services. COVID-19 may also delay what would normally provide the 5G with a consumer boost: the new 5G-capable iPhone 12.

The most bizarre hurdle in the 5G rollout, however, is the whole 5G-causes-COVID-19 lunacy, which makes about as much sense as the moon causing insanity. While most sane people understand the craziness of this 21st century cause-and-effect claim, it practically presents public perception problems that must be addressed. After all, the whole moon-causes-insanity lunacy left us with the word “lunacy.”

Deleterious consequences of new technology, sane or not, are historically endemic. Unfortunately, anecdotal reports of harmful impacts, regardless of their veracity, can transform into unshakable assumptions. For instance, a decade ago there was a contretemps about Wi-Fi’s health issues, and just a few years ago there were the claims about cellphone radiation causing cancer.

But first perceptions are persistent and powerful. “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it,” Jonathan Swift remarked, an astute observation that MIT confirmed in a study of false tweets. As a result, in addition to dealing with sub-6 vs. mmWave education, navigating the Huawei/infrastructure/security/China trade war, and overcoming coronavirus-caused 5G deployment delays, 5G proponents need to create a clever counter to this crazy coronavirus causation conspiracy to reverse the most bizarre 5G roadblock of this most bizarre 5G rollout.