Why the Current Talk About 5G Is Overly Optimistic

Why the Current Talk About 5G Is Overly Optimistic

Are promises of 5G services by 2020 realistic, or is it just hype?

The proposed next-generation wireless network technology has grabbed headlines across the world, with industry spectators saying that 5G will be accessible to the public by 2020. This next-generation technology is touted to be ultra-fast, cheaper and to be compatible with a wide range of devices. However at this point 5G hasn’t even been properly defined, beyond simply being the successor to 4G.

At CES, Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg said that 5G would empower the fourth industrial revolution. Recently, Telstra has announced that Australians will be able to buy 5G-ready smartphones from Telstra stores by the coming June. The telco giant has signed deals with several smartphone makers to get exclusive access to their 5G-compatible devices. Telstra chief executive Andy Penn announced the deal at the CES tech show held in Las Vegas.

Telstra is the country’s first mobile network provider to give a clear timeframe of when people will be able to access its 5G mobile network. However, Telstra’s 5G phones will operate on a limited network at the initial stage, raising questions of whether they will represent a significant, meaningful improvement on existing 4G devices at the consumer level.

5G technology

Telstra says their customers will soon have exclusive access to 5G-enabled phones on Australia’s largest and fastest mobile network. Over 200 Telstra 5G mobile base stations are operating nationwide to enable customers to experience this new technology in these early stages. However, the telco has said little about the 5G plans they will offer and how their 5G phones will be different from 4G phones.

Last December, Telstra acquired the 3.6GHz band on which these new phones will run.


 Frequencies assigned in the 3.6GHz band spectrum auction

Frequencies assigned in the auction for 3.6GHz band spectrum

Telstra leads the 3.6GHz band spectrum auction. Source.

The company has more than 200 5G-ready towers across the nation’s capital cities, and other regional centres like Toowoomba, Gold Coast, and Launceston. That means Telstra’s 5G customers will be able to access the network only in only those locations, reverting to 4G networks in other areas. The telco is continuously building and upgrading infrastructure in preparation, and will have to negotiate with the Australian Communications and Media Authority to get early access to the spectrum, which it can’t currently access until 2020.

Telstra has also not revealed smartphone manufacturers that are included in their future 5G plans. However, Apple is unlikely to be a part of the initial rollout, as the tech giant is not expected to release its first 5G phone until 2020. 

The real problem surrounding 5G

Both 5G providers and their potential customers appear to be very excited about the potential of 5G. This new technology promises speeds of nearly 10 gigabits per second to consumers’ smartphones. It will reportedly be 600 times faster than existing 4G speeds and ten times faster than Google Fiber’s home broadband. That’s fast enough to download a high-definition 4K movie in just a few seconds. The technology will support incredible advances in areas like data enterprises, health care, and autonomous vehicles. 

However, in the excitement about futuristic technological advances, discussions about real-world applications and what 5G network access will look like to a regular consumer have been overshadowed.

While the next-generation cellular technology promises blazing-fast speeds, early real-world demonstrations of 5G’s capabilities are rare – and sometimes misleading. While there are a number of Australian telcos promising 5G services in 2020, some of them are developing those networks using technology that overlooks the agreed-upon standards.

The fifth-generation network depends on millimetre-wave signals, which can’t travel as far as those of 4G networks. 5G requires a large number of access points, meaning that existing infrastructure will need to be upgraded and new structures built to enable functional coverage for 5G users.

The hope for 5G 

Last month, at MWC, many smartphone makers including Samsung showed their 5G phones behind the glass. With all these options already on the table, it can be expected that more companies may debut their 5G devices in the coming months.

The network is being developed, and the devices are close to being available to consumers. One can’t function without the other, so until both phones and network are make accessible to the public, we won’t know exactly what 5G will look like or what kinds of speed and latency it will be able to achieve. Although Telstra are investing big money into stretching the reach of the network before it is even properly switched on, it’s impossible to know what kind of coverage the average user will get, the network’s reliability or answers to many questions about functionality that customers will undoubtedly have.

While 5G has been promised by 2020 by more than one Australian telco and both phones and network should be somewhat ready by then, it might be jumping the gun to dream of a super-quick, ultra-reliable network that will be available straight away. 

Given all the confusion, 5G talks appear overly optimistic – at least, for now.

Neil Aitken

Having worked in 3 countries for 4 telcos on both voice and data products, Neil is in a position to give you the inside track. Get beyond the marketing messages to the best plan for you.