2019 was a busy year for 5G to say the least. It was the year that the rubber met the road and talk finally transformed into action. Years of hype gave way to a gradual, if uneven, rollout of 5G service across the US and in many parts of the world. Launches in various cities were often plagued with delays, patchy service, and confusion. Some communities began to rebel against a hasty, sometimes forced, deployment of what many saw as intrusive and possibly dangerous antenna equipment.
As 2019 went by, though, 5G finally “happened”, even if only partially. As we look back on 5G’s eventful inaugural year, many questions remain. What went right? What went wrong? What does the future hold?
The Rollout Wars
The end of 2018 and the beginning of 2019 saw a scramble between major US wireless carriers like Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile, to be recognized as the first to launch a working 5G network and secure bragging rights for years.
Causing some confusion in the “first to 5G” race is the fact that 5G operates on two different frequency bands, both of which deliver different levels of speed and functionality. The lower-frequency “mid-band” has a longer transmission range and can service a larger geographic area, where the millimeter (mm) wave band has much faster data rates, but a very short range requiring a dense distribution of antennas. Deploying the mm wave antennas is expensive and time-consuming and is only practical in populated urban areas.
Currently there is a shortage in the US to employee cell tower workers – there are not enough skilled workers to fill the current needs. It’s said that by 2026 there could be over 800,000 more cell towers installed in the US alone, not counting the hundreds of thousands of satellites that will be in orbit by that time.
AT&T was the first to try and plant their flag as 5G pioneers in late 2018, but they added to confusion about what 5G is with a highly criticized marketing campaign whereby they boosted the speed of their existing LTE network and called it “5G Evolution”, which displayed as “5Ge” on some customer devices. This was not actually 5G. Later, they launched proper 5G service in several US cities, but the service was only available via Wi-Fi “hotspots” due to the lack of compatible devices on the market.
Verizon followed in the spring with a limited launch of 5G in Minneapolis, but access to the network at the time of launch was only available through a Motorola Z4 phone with a 5G mod attachment. Service was reported to be unstable and patchy in the early stages of Verizon’s deployment. Over the course of the year, consumer devices capable of using AT&T and Verizon 5G networks eventually started to become available.
Meanwhile, although Sprint and T-Mobile had later rollouts, they concentrated more on offering wider 5G coverage to customers by deploying mid-band service. T-Mobile now offers 5G over most of its service area, with mm wave coverage in limited parts of some cities. A potential upcoming merger between Sprint and T-Mobile may give them the most customers using 5G of some kind.
The table at the end of this article summarizes 5G coverage in US cities, showing current and upcoming deployments. In all cases, though, availability of 5G compatible devices has lagged behind the launch of the networks. The push by telecom carriers to get mm wave service up and running has also met with resistance in some areas.
Controversy and Pushback
A confluence of factors has resulted some grassroots and local government efforts to rein in deployment of 5G infrastructure, particularly the small-cell mm wave antennas, in several communities.
Federal and some state laws have been passed to streamline the regulatory processes that carriers must go through before installing equipment on public property. In some cases, the laws have even circumvented local policies and kept them from implementing full fees and approvals normally required from private companies for use of government-owned utility poles. The rushed 5G deployment has left some communities with incomplete, unsightly antenna installations and little recourse or control over the process. This has resulted in lawsuits and injunctions, many of which are ongoing.
Some citizens are also concerned about the potential health effects of 5G transmissions, particularly in the high-frequency mm wave band. Since the short-range mm band requires that antennas be located close to people (and all living things), with clear line-of-sight, to work properly, small-cell antenna arrays are being placed adjacent (closely) to homes, schools, places of businesses and daycares. Some groups are calling for more study of the effects of long-term exposure to 5G radiation before these antennas become a permanent fixture.
Despite the confusion, controversy, and some setbacks, 2019 seems to be the year that 5G finally arrived. December and January are typically “phone season”, so with a new slate of 5G-capable devices being introduced, the number of users on the new network is expected to surge. Looking ahead to the next year, we should begin to see if 5G lives up to its billing as a catalyst for the next wave of tech innovation.