• United States
by Kevin DiLallo, Laura McDonald and Joe Schmidt

Like 4G before it, 5G is being hyped

May 21, 20204 mins
MobileNetworkingSmall and Medium Business

U.S. carriers are talking about their 5G wireless offerings before they actually have services that meet the likely 5G standard, and they face stiff competition from China and others to lead the way.

5g hype buzz over sell pitch announce bull horn megaphone
Credit: DNY59 / Getty

Update 5/21/2020: AT&T Inc. says it will stop using the phrases “5G Evolution” and “5G Evolution, The First Step to 5G” in marketing its 4G LTE network that provides 5G speeds, according to CNN. The National Advertising Review Board recommended the change, saying the language “will mislead reasonable customers” into thinking they’re buying a 5G servivce. AT&T said in a statement that it “respectfully disagrees” with the recommendation but said it would comply. 

Just as it did with 4G, AT&T has once again jumped the gun and announced that it was deploying 5G (actually, they’re calling it 5G+) in 12 cities, while deploying so-called “5GE” in other cities, only to be challenged by its three major competitors, who claim that AT&T was merely re-branding a faster version of 4G as 5G and misleading the public about the technology.

As exciting as this news sounds, it requires some caveats.  First, “5GE” isn’t 5G at all, but faster 4G, also known as “Gigabit LTE.”  Second, while AT&T claims 5G+ can achieve speeds of 200-300 Mbps, it says the technology is “delivered over millimeter wave spectrum,” which is only one aspect of the 3GPP 5G New Radio Standard for true 5G. (3GPP 5G also entails small cells, beamforming, and MIMO, all of which are missing from AT&T’s description of 5G+.)

AT&T did the same thing with 4G several years ago, and received the same derisive reaction, but apparently, it has a short memory. In fairness, AT&T is deploying newly licensed spectrum to boost the capacity of its 4G network by up to 50 percent in hundreds of 5GE markets, which will result in faster speeds – but not true 5G.

In full-page ads in major cities’ daily newspapers, Verizon has challenged the wireless industry to be honest about 5G to avoid confusion and misleading the public. Despite its sanctimony, Verizon Wireless’s own version of “5G” isn’t based on the 3GPP 5G New Radio Standard, but rather Verizon’s own homegrown version of 5G, which it calls “5GTF.”

In the meantime, Sprint, the number four carrier, claims to have become the first U.S. carrier to use real 5G technology based on the 3GPP standard on a test basis in San Diego in January. So, as is often the case with wireless services, the only thing we know is that we know very little. Industry analysts predict that widespread commercial rollout of true 5G service won’t happen until at least 2020, with true 5G smartphones not available until 2021.

China favored in the 5G race

Meanwhile, the global battle for 5G leadership rages on between the U.S. and China. China’s Huawei Technologies, a manufacturer of wireless devices, network infrastructure and components, is aggressively seeking world dominance in 5G as both a standards setter and an equipment provider, particularly in Asia, Africa, and parts of Europe.  The U.S. government has banned Huawei’s products from government procurements, fearing that the Chinese government can use those products to spy on Americans, and it is urging U.S. carriers and U.S. allies to do the same.  Canada, Great Britain, and Germany are already on board with U.S. concerns. Nevertheless, analysts predict that China will be the first country to achieve large-scale 5G deployment, followed by South Korea and then the U.S.

American wireless carriers and electronics manufacturers have to spend more on R & D and need more spectrum to be competitive.  Even so, some experts report that U.S. carriers plan to invest $275B in 5G, which could boost the nation’s GDP by $350B and create 3 million new jobs.  In short, when it finally happens, 5G will truly be revolutionary.


What all this means for enterprise buyers in 2019 is caveat emptor. Don’t rush out and replace all your old iPhone 8s or Xs and Samsung Galaxies with new devices promising 5G connectivity until the market works out what 5G really is, and the industry works out the bugs.  Furthermore, as exciting as the new technology promises to be, costs for early adopters are certain to be much higher than those available later. 

Kevin DiLallo and Laura McDonald are partners at Levine, Blaszak, Block & Boothby (LB3), a D.C. law firm, and Joe Schmidt is a Project Director at TechCaliber Consulting (TC2). The firms help maximize businesses’ return on investment in information communication technology.