Telecom Companies Are Seriously Overhyping 5G Networks

The marketing gimmicks would be hilarious if they didn’t come with potentially major consequences.

Screenshot of the Sprint/T-Mobile 5G commercial.
T-Mobile/YouTube

This piece is adapted from an article that originally ran in the New America Weekly.

By now, you’ve likely heard of 5G, the next-generation wireless network. At the very least, you’ve likely read headlines or seen ads hailing how it will change home internet, the economy, and society in massive ways. Companies continue to fall over one another to say that they’ll be the first to offer this new, “life-changing“ technology.

The problem? These claims are, as yet, untested, and they could be used to justify actions that would hurt not only the broadband market, but consumers.

Fifth generation, or 5G, most simply defined, is the new technological standard for the next generation of wireless networks. As the number suggests, we’ve been through previous generations of standards before. There was 1G for analog phones and 2G for digital phones (think SMS and voicemail). Then there were 3G networks, which came with the mobile broadband internet connections that enabled the smartphone revolution, and 4G and 4G LTE—which, among other advancements, improved and sped up those data connections.

Proponents of 5G say that this next-generation network will be a larger leap than we’ve ever seen before. For one, they promise 5G will deliver data at speeds around 20 times faster than 4G. And it’s not just about phones. Many predict its capacity, speeds, and response times will pave the way for a massive rise in the number and sophistication of Internet of Things tech, including playing an essential role in a future with networked autonomous vehicles like self-driving cars and drones. These predictions, however, are far from definitive.

Despite the fact that we’re years away from 5G’s nationwide commercial rollout—some analysts have predicted that we won’t see widespread deployment of strong 5G services in the U.S. until 2022 or 2023—and have yet to see any of these predictions come to fruition, telecommunications companies insist that the 5G revolution is already here, or just around the corner. This month brought a comical example when AT&T announced that it would begin offering what it misleadingly called “5G E,” which, in reality, is really only a slight upgrade to its current 4G LTE network. T-Mobile subsequently mocked AT&T by tweeting the message, “didn’t realize it was this easy, brb updating,” along with a video of someone putting a small piece of tape labeled “9G” over their smartphone’s network status bar icon. The backlash hasn’t deterred AT&T, which is still advertising that it’s “America’s best wireless network … now with 5G E.”

It’s not just AT&T. All four of the big mobile carriers have been dropping announcements about their upcoming 5G networks and partnerships with device manufacturers in a seemingly rampant desperation to one-up each other. Verizon recently unveiled its “5G” service, which combines traditional fixed services with some of the technologies that are part of 5G standards, marking a similar (though much less embarrassing) effort to stake the claim of being first to make the leap to the next-generation network. The big marketing push can also be found outside of the wireless industry. Comcast, for example, was promoting what it called “10G” at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show, hoping to capitalize on the 5G hype to advertise its fixed broadband service. Unsurprisingly, 10G actually has nothing to do with 5G networks, but it does have a nice, futuristic ring to it.

Hype aside, there are actual standards for what constitutes a 5G network, and mobile carriers are investing heavily to deploy nationwide 5G networks that they say will bring faster speeds.
But the marketing buzz gimmicks they’re using today to mislead could have harmful consequences of their own.

For one, there’s the issue of companies trying to encourage their customers to upgrade to new, 5G-enabled smartphones (the first of which are set to come out the first half of this year)—which could cost them $200 to $300 more than current 4G-era smartphones—before the new networks are up and running, before carriers have announced the terms or pricing for their forthcoming 5G wireless plans, and before we have a sense of just how good these new networks will actually be nationwide. While some carriers have begun to deploy 5G, as AT&T did in 12 cities in December, these networks mostly amount to demos for the time being—and, again, even optimistic estimates still suggest it will be years before we see these new networks built out across country.

The 5G hype also carries the looming threat that the telecommunications industry and its allies, in promoting 5G’s yet-to-be-seen enhanced capabilities, may try to push the Federal Communications Commission to deem mobile broadband a viable substitute for fixed broadband (think DSL, cable modems, Wi­–Fi, etc.). Such a change by the FCC would be far more than just a bureaucratic technicality. It would be an alarming conclusion that would undermine a powerful law that calls on the agency to make sure that “advanced telecommunications capability” is deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.

Currently, the section defines that “advanced telecommunications capability” as high-speed fixed broadband. This law has helped to bring semi-reasonably-priced, functional internet connections to schools and to rural, tribal, low-income areas that otherwise would have been left behind or left paying exorbitant costs for these vital connections. Mobile broadband now is not a substitute for fixed broadband (see: this excellent CityLab article on trying to live on mobile-only internet)—and we have yet to see any proof that 5G will make mobile broadband less restrictive or less expensive compared to fixed broadband.

Yet the telecommunications industry has, for the past few years, been pushing for the FCC to declare mobile a substitute for fixed broadband. So far, the agency has resisted. But the hype around 5G might be what it takes to tip the scales. If the FCC were to formally agree that mobile could considered an “advanced telecommunications capability,” it would mean fewer requirements for the big telecoms to continue to maintain these kinds of fixed broadband services to underserved and unserved areas of the country.

We may have already seen a preview this argument, which brings us to a far greater threat 5G hype poses in the short-term: the proposed merger between wireless telecom giants T-Mobile and Sprint. It’s a deal that my team at New America has argued would bring dangerous levels of consolidation to the wireless market. Among other serious issues, it would reduce the number of competitors in the industry from four to just three, reduce innovation, raise prices on wireless bills, wreak havoc on prepaid and wholesale markets that lower-income customers depend on, and eliminate an estimated 28,000 U.S. jobs. And it’s a deal that rests, in large part, on inflated projections that Sprint and T-Mobile make about the future 5G networks will bring.

In documents currently under review by the FCC, the nation’s third-largest wireless carrier makes the case that its merger with the nation’s fourth-largest wireless carrier is necessary if the two hope to build a nationwide 5G network that will deliver customers hyper-fast speeds, serve as a competitor (or even a replacement) to high-speed fixed broadband, bring improved connectivity to rural areas, and to compete with competitor carriers AT&T and Verizon for the “betterment of all consumers and the country.” The claims are central to the companies’ argument for approving the deal, so much so that T-Mobile and Sprint list 5G as the first “consumer benefit” in its initial filing to the FCC.

But these grandiose talking points about consumer benefits seem premature at best, misleading at worst, and certainly should not be viewed as concrete consumer benefits. While 5G does bring promise—for instance, likely improvements in speeds and capabilities—the full extent of that promise is still unknown. Some predict that it will only bring a modest improvement compared to current 4G speeds and will ultimately disappoint consumers. We also still haven’t seen evidence that a 5G rollout, in practice, would provide a viable and cost-saving substitute for fixed broadband, or that the carriers would necessarily pass on the bulk of the benefits and savings to consumers, especially those who don’t buy into the most expensive tiers of service. (Remember all the limits on “unlimited” plans?) Nor have we seen proof that rural areas will benefit from 5G as much as T-Mobile and Sprint claim.

One analysis of the companies’ data suggests that the merger and proposed 5G build-out would only marginally improve capacity and coverage for some rural Americans, and it would be insufficient to expand or replace rural broadband coverage. What’s more, the analysis also suggests that, even six years after the proposed merger, over a quarter of rural customers still wouldn’t have access to 5G service. This is in part because of economic incentives to focus on urban areas with their high concentrations of potential customers (in fact, the NTCA-Rural Broadband Association specifically called BS on T-Mobile’s claims about the merger’s potential to improve service in these areas by noting T-Mobile’s history of consistently poor build-outs and performance in rural regions). It’s also because some of the technical characteristics of 5G coverage—specifically, that the signals travel in frequencies that can only travel short distances and are particularly vulnerable to natural obstacles and inclement weather—mean that the highest speeds being touted by the industry will be restricted to urban environments with dense populations.

As former FCC Chairman Michael Powell recently said, expressing skepticism over wireless industry’s hype, “5G is 25 percent technology, 75 percent marketing.” Though Powell now represents and speaks on behalf of a major cable industry group, which has its own motivations for challenging the veracity of the wireless industry’s claims about 5G, his underlying point is well taken.

This kind of hype and overselling of an emerging technology, of course, isn’t unique. The prospect of new capabilities has always fueled excitement by enthusiasts who believe it will radically transform lives, and by those hoping to cash in. 5G may very well usher in profound changes in our technological capabilities. But the benefits are years from coming to fruition—and we shouldn’t let our eagerness to see those benefits cloud our judgment about what’s realistic and what will actually benefit those living in that future.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.