Speaking at a Business Insider conference last week, Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam revealed that that next month the U.S. operator will have a live 5G network running at its headquarters in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. Those trials will then expand to San Francisco, Boston and New York City, in preparation for a commercial 5G launch in 2017.
That’s exciting stuff, and McAdam’s timeline would seem to cement Verizon’s place in history as the first operator to launch 5G. But I think Verizon is being a bit disingenuous about what kind of new network we’ll see in 2017. I have little doubt Verizon will build some kind of new network that improves upon 4G’s performance and efficiency, but whatever that network is it won’t be 5G.
5G hasn’t been defined yet, many of the technologies that will eventually go into 5G haven’t been fully developed or standardized, and the world hasn’t even identified the airwaves 5G will use. That process certainly isn’t going to be completed by 2017, so whatever network Verizon is going to deploy is going to use some kind of proprietary technology. That’s important because standards are what makes the mobile industry work. Standards ensure that we get handsets at semi-reasonable prices and available on multiple networks because they give device makers like Apple and Samsung the economies of scale necessary to mass-produce iPhones and Galaxys. Standards drive down the cost of network equipment and deployments and they help ensure that not just super-rich countries and operators get access to advanced technology.
What’s more, 5G likely won’t be a single technology. The way 5G development is progressing so far, it appears we’ll see two distinct evolutionary stages. The first will be continuation of the LTE and LTE-Advanced technologies that are already thriving in the world today. Those technologies will push the 4G speed envelope, drive down network latency and optimize today’s networks for low-power, low-bandwidth devices on the Internet of things. It’s quite likely Verizon will be able to field a commercial version of those first 4G enhancements in 2017.
The second stage, however, is where the multi-gigabit speeds we keep hearing about will come from. The mobile industry wants to tap massive amounts of unused high-frequency spectrum to create extremely high-bandwidth connections. The problem is that technology won’t fit into a smartphone anytime soon, if ever. The devices the mobile industry is currently testing are about the size of refrigerator. In 2017, Verizon may very well have the beginnings of a 5G network, but the full-fledged super-powered 5G networks we’re being promised won’t emerge until years later.
I want to make it clear I’m not condemning the work Verizon is doing in 5G. What the operator is doing is important. It’s made a commitment to move to the next generation of mobile networking. It’s trials will help prove the 5G’s capabilities in the wild. And given Verizon’s size and influence, it could very well push 5G development along faster. Verizon did a similar thing for 4G when it committed to launching LTE in 2010.
What I have problem with is Verizon’s messaging. It’s building up expectations that we’ll have 5G smartphones that average 1 Gbps in 2017. It’s promising our conceptions of mobile communications and mobile broadband will fundamentally change in less than two years’ time. Those expectations simply aren’t realistic, and all they’ll do is produce disappointment when Verizon’s miracle network does launch. If you thought the hype surrounding 4G was bad, 5G hype is going to be worse.