Once in a generation, a technology comes along that changes everything: how we work, communicate, trade, live.
And based on a year of seemingly endless coverage, you could be forgiven for believing that "5G", the next advance in wireless technology, is it.
It will make the internet-of-things a reality; it will fix internet access for rural areas; it will create entire new markets; it will change literally everything that we do on a day-to-day basis.
Except it won't. And more and more people are getting fed up with the hype. Hype that, incidentally, has led pretty much every Congressman and woman to believe that the United States is in a global "race to 5G" – and why mobile operators should be subsidized to expand their money-making networks, and why new rules and laws must be passed to override local and state government who are simply getting in the way of this incredible technology.
So it may come as a surprise to find that some big names are not quite so enamored with 5G.
Earlier this week, at the Cable-Tec Expo in Atlanta – the annual get-together for folks that send information through cables rather than over the air – the CTO of Cox Communications Kevin Hart was in a rambunctious mood when he told a room full of attendees: "You know 5G is going to be great, because it’s got 25 per cent more G."
The truth, as many in the industry know but constantly forget to point out, is that all these "Gs" – from 2G to 3G to 4G – are gross simplifications. Almost by accident, the term "3G" was picked up by consumers and lodged in society's collective memory, which led to mobile phone companies and operators using the term "4G" as a way to push their new phones and services.
But the "5G" moniker has stretched that already tenuous link to breaking point. In almost all cases right now, when people talk excitedly about 5G they are really talking about advanced version of 4G, such as 4G LTE. The actual 5G spec hasn't been fully decided yet, and is still in flux in many ways. Plus, despite a year's worth of talk about how vital 5G is, the truth is that the most advanced installations of 5G right now are still effectively test facilities. They only got a 5G phone to actually work last month.
Don't believe us? At the same Cable-Tec Expo, the head of the NCTA (the Internet and Television Association) Michael Powell – a former head of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – came out with this gem: "5G is 25 per cent technology, 75 per cent marketing."
He also called it the wireless industry's "latest widget" and pointed out that 5G wireless technology isn't magic: it still requires lots of connections to wired connections – cables in the ground – to work.
"You know what the wireless guys like most?" he asked the audience mischievously. "Wireline networks."
Not only does 5G rely on a wired network, there is also good reason to believe that it won't work as wonderfully as everyone insists it will. Sure, you when you are sitting next to a 5G transmitter, you will get that HD video at super speed.
But if you are in a built-up city with skyscrapers and you turn the corner… or if you are in rural areas and there is a big tree in between you and the transmitter. Or if the fog comes rolling in… Well, then things are going to get a lot more 3G pretty fast.
Which makes it all the more baffling that companies like Verizon keep insisting that 5G is going to provide an alternative to wired broadband. It isn't. But the current FCC administration keeps pretending that it will, even trying – and failing – to legally equate wireless and wired networks when it comes to broadband access.
The FCC is also behind measures to expand 5G at the lowest possible cost to mobile operators, purposefully overriding the concerns of state and local government and insisting that 5G cell sites should be approved wherever possible and at a single flat fee. The FCC and the White House have also effectively forced federal buildings to approve new 5G sites.
It's all too much for some.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has grown so fed up with the fake hype that this week it produced a long piece solely on this topic.
"All across the country right now, major wireless Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are talking to legislators, mayors, regulators, and the press about the potential of 5G wireless services as if they will cure all of the problems Americans face right now in the high-speed access market," complained the EFF's legislative counsel Ernesto Falcon.
"But the cold hard reality is the newest advancements in wireless services will probably do very little about the high-speed monopolies that a majority of this country faces."
He goes on: "In reality, we are already woefully behind South Korea and many countries in the EU. In essence, 5G is being aggressively marketed in policy circles because it provides a useful distraction from the fundamental fact that the United States market is missing out on 21st century broadband access, affordable prices, and extraordinary advancements coming from fiber to the home (FTTH) networks."
Too much for too little
That is a somewhat one-sided viewpoint but in essence Falcon is right: 5G is being held out as the solution to a long-standing problem of an effective oligopoly in internet provision in the United States that has seen everyone pay too much for too little.
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New rules are being passed and billions of federal dollars are being put into 5G while the bigger issue of lack of competition in the cable market is being largely ignored.
No one wants to take on Big Cable, which is sitting pretty on its carefully carved-out local monopolies. Big wireless companies know that there is so much pent-up demand for fast internet access that if they can get their own networks in place, they can steal a big chunk of the market. And the plus is that rolling out 5G cell sites costs roughly half of what it costs to add fiber. Which is great, except for the fact that fiber can provide much, much faster internet access.
The purely logical step would be for the US to invest in a vast fiber network – as other countries are trying to do – in order to provide a massive infrastructural foundation for the future. But that doesn't account for companies with very deep pockets who made their money by extracting as much money as possible from consumers, and who can afford the best lobbyists in state and federal capitals.
There are a number of smaller ISPs that are trying to fill this clear gap in the market – Sonic being perhaps the best known – as well as municipal efforts across the US – Chattanooga has become a poster boy – to get fiber to people. And the entire rest of the industry spends a lot of its time actively getting in their way.
Telecom policy expert Harold Feld has been writing for quite some time about the 5G hype machine and how it has been bordering on ridiculous for a while.
"It's become increasingly impossible to talk about spectrum policy without getting into the fight over whether 5G is a miracle technology that will end poverty, war and disease or an evil marketing scam by wireless carriers to extort concessions in exchange for magic beans," he began one frustrated post in June entitled: "So What The Heck Does 5G Actually Do?"
Most recently this month, the company he works for – open internet advocates Public Knowledge – tried to stop the FCC from giving the big wireless companies yet another boost by rewriting the rules to make sure that only the biggest national companies will be able to get hold of 5G spectrum.
He failed and now it looks increasingly likely that the federal government will knowingly create – and reinforce – two different oligopolies in wired and wireless networks, both of which will end up overcharging US consumers for slow internet access while telling everyone that they are getting an amazing deal.
And just one more article, again posted this week, by telecoms consultant Doug Dawson. Doug is bullish about 5G – after all, that’s where all the money is right now.
But even a telecoms consultant who makes a living from riding the waves is keen to point out that while 5G will "bring the next generation of wireless to life" it is "no panacea."
<pAnd if you want evidence that the 5G marketing hype has got out of control, its purest sign was at the Cable-Tec Expo where Michael Powell exhibited that most dangerous of emotions when expressed by a powerful, almost insurmountable industry monolith: jealousy.
Powell suggested – with a straight face – that the cable industry may be being too humble and should probably promote itself more. He cited the Full Duplex DOCSIS 3.1 standard – which, to be fair, is the one technological advance we are excited about – that could end up delivering 10Gbps to homes. That is 10 times what even the most excited enthusiasts claim will be possible with 5G.
Powell's suggestion for making DOCSIS 3.1 a widely known standard? Call it "10G." ®