Faster internet is coming to your phone in the form of tech with fancy names like 5G and LTE-U. But just what that tech will look like and how good it will be remains to be seen.
“5G will connect everybody, and everything,” Tim Baxter, President of Samsung Electronics America, breathlessly told a large gathering of reporters and industry analysts over the weekend. Baxter was on stage at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, and his job was to convince the room his company is hyped on the future. “We believe in 5G’s promise,” he said.
Nokia, which announced new phones at the conference, was also pumped about 5G. “It’s going to help shape lives for people,” Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri told the audience during the company’s keynote presentation. At an event earlier in the day, he said that 5G is “not hype but soon to come reality.”
Faster wireless internet is on everyone’s mind these days: Last week, the FCC authorized LTE-U devices on the 5GHz spectrum previously used exclusively by wi-fi and Bluetooth devices. That means telecom companies like Verizon and T-Mobile will have bigger lanes to transmit their traffic on. “This is a significant advance in wireless innovation and a big win for wireless consumers,” FCC chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement. T-Mobile immediately announced plans to take advantage of the authorization by the end of 2017. The same day, Verizon declared that by the middle of 2017 5G services would be rolled out to 11 cities.
In fairness to the corporations stoking hype about faster wireless internet, there is, in fact, spectacular promise. Phones equipped for 5G, or even LTE-U will download in seconds what it takes minutes to download today. Besides faster speeds, 5G has much lower latency so you can play competitive online multiplayer games, and its better performance in dense population centers means you’re less likely to find yourself with dropped calls or laggy speeds in places like New York City or Chicago.
The move to faster mobile wireless could also be a boon for rural communities and other sparsely populated parts of America. Many of those locales are currently stuck using sluggish dial-up, spotty satellite, or inconsistent 4G wireless. According to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, wireless internet could help with rural America’s internet problems. It’s currently number two on his Digital Empowerment Agenda for improving service in rural communities, and in a post to Medium Pai said he wants to “close the digital divide—the gap between those who use cutting-edge communications services and those who do not.”
All the big companies and their leaders are saying the same thing: The 5G future is now. But to believe them means you need to forget who is actually creating the new super-fast internet: Standards organizations which speak in miracles and complicated science, telecoms and consumer electronic companies that survive on hype and broken promises, and the now anti-consumer FCC. Which means that the true promise of super-fast internet, whether LTE-U or 5G, will likely come long after the services themselves are available.
The first problem is that there is competing tech vying to bring wireless internet speeds in the gigabit range. You have LTE-U, which is sort of a half-measure between the 4G we enjoy now, and the promise of 5G in the future. A spokesperson for CTIA, a wireless industry advocacy group, explained there is a difference between LTE-U and 5G—that LTE-U is intended to “immediately improve service to Americans” while members of CTIA “are also investing in 5G technology.”
Though Matt Wood of FreePress is quick to point out that LTE-U’s promise could backfire. “LTE-U could be a good thing for users,” Wood told Gizmodo. “The problem is if and when it’s used to crowd out other unlicensed services on the spectrum.” LTE-U operates on the same spectrum as traditional wi-fi and traditional wi-fi has protocols in place that keep any one router or wi-fi service from overwhelming another. Which is why everyone in your apartment complex or office building can have their own router. “If LTE-U gets aggressive and doesn’t follow established protocols,” Wood said, “that’s bad.”
Meanwhile the other much-lauded tech coming to supercharge your phones has its own problems. First, 5G isn’t clearly defined yet. 5G isn’t the name of specific tech, but an abbreviation for 5th generation—as in the 5th generation of mobile networks. In 2015, the Next Generation Mobile Networks Alliance, a European consortium of wireless vendors, researchers and mobile operators, published a white paper that attempted to define 5G. 3GPP, an international standards organization, published its own white paper earlier this month with the same goal. The International Telecommunications Union, an organization under the United Nations, and the group who often establishes standards like 5G, only issued its draft report last week. But white papers and drafts, while full of bold declarations and hard science, are not official standards. And according to the same report from the ITU, that standard isn’t likely to be in place until 2020.
Thus much of the discussion currently around 5G remains so nebulous that talking about 5G is sort of like talking about the house you plan to build while only being in the “design it in Sims” phase. In light of this, the news about major 5G developments feel less like the future of mobile wireless internet and more like marketing spiels. What exactly does it mean when Qualcomm announces a 5G ready modem and mobile CPU last fall, or Intel announces a modem at CES, or Samsung announces a 5G-ready mobile CPU last week and new 5G routers over the weekend? These companies are announcing a faster tomorrow and planning to use roads that simply don’t exist yet.
Part of the problem is that the wireless internet super highway of tomorrow is very expensive. Building 5G to support more than phones—to support homes and driverless cars and the Internet of Things—is going to be just as expensive as building cable has been. 5G requires base stations and cell sites just like 4G, but those base stations, in order to handle the loads demanded by all the connected devices in homes, need to be plentiful as the base stations necessary for current home internet solutions like Google Fiber and Verizon FIOS.
“Mobile is reliant on having a communications network on the ground,” Phillip Berenbroick of non-profit Public Knowledge told Gizmodo, “and the economics have not changed.”
And even when the infrastructure is built, you’re still dealing with companies that aren’t very consumer friendly. Despite all of the carriers recently re-embracing the concept unlimited data, telecoms do not have a good record for keeping the airwaves open. Profit always comes before user experience.
AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon all assume that because they run the roads that they can do whatever they want. Under the previous administration, the FCC was a strident supporter of consumers’ rights. It hit AT&T with a hundred million dollar fine over throttling “unlimited” data for users and forced T-Mobile to clarify its own throttling policy in interactions with customers.
The current FCC is firmly anti-regulation—asking consumers and companies to fend for themselves. You should be much more cynical about its willingness to curb the transgressions of telecoms, first as $100 consumer routers find themselves angling for bandwidth against multi-million dollar cell sites in the LTE-U space, and later as those same consumers demand the 5G they pay for and are denied by telecoms more concerned with their bottom line.
The people who may one day provide everyone’s internet desperately want to control it, and the new FCC is more than happy to let them. So don’t expect absolute joy to come from deregulation and breathless product announcements. As far as the tech is concerned at the moment, 5G is just another buzzword meant to get you to upgrade.