The 5G hype-cycle is spinning so fast these days, you can barely see the spokes. None of the cellular providers are blameless when it comes to spinning it, but T-Mobile seems more willing than the others to admit the truth around 5G: Namely, it’s never going to scale very well outside dense urban environments.
Neville Ray, T-Mobile’s CTO, has written a blog post arguing that the current state of 5G “is clearly not good enough.” Ray points out that the 5G launches we’ve seen from Verizon and AT&T are spotty and that performance is highly variable. He posted a GIF of what happens to mmWave signals when a sliding glass door is closed. A frame from the image, shown below, illustrates the problem — the top signal strength line goes flat when the door is even halfway shut.
These problems are going to be difficult for carriers to solve because they’re intrinsic to the EM wavelengths being used for 5G in the first place. One of the reason it’s so funny to see the conspiracy theories around the supposed danger of 5G signals is because 5G signals are so easily blocked.
Water vapor in the atmosphere causes 5G range to attenuate. Glass — a substance generally regarded as superior for EM transmission compared with other solids — is still difficult for mmWave signals. Early 5G reviews have noted that services generally only work outside or close to an exterior wall, even in a heavily glassed environment. Beamforming and MIMO may improve these results somewhat, but 5G is starting from a very different point on the field compared with LTE.
Ray’s decision to attack the networks Verizon and AT&T are deploying is, of course, partly driven by the fact that T-Mobile is lagging its rivals in 5G rollouts. The fact that the man is self-interested doesn’t make him wrong, though. The fact is, 5G is barely in its infancy. There are no supported 5G devices with native 5G modems right now. The technology really isn’t ready for customers.
Will Rural Areas See 5G?
Rural areas are definitely going to see some form of 5G, but it may not be the millimeter wave technology that’s being deployed right now in urban areas. US Cellular, for example, has announced that it will use older LTE spectrum and 600MHz bands for rural 5G. T-Mobile is planning something similar, with different spectrum bands. Here’s Ray:
T-Mobile has a strong portfolio of low band spectrum, which provides the wide area coverage necessary to reach every American. T-Mobile also has mmWave spectrum that provides massive capacity over a very small footprint. It holds big promise for speed and capacity in dense urban areas and venues where large numbers of people gather. And Sprint has the critical middle layer of 2.5 GHz mid-band spectrum, which provides the balance of coverage and capacity that enables a seamless and meaningful 5G experience. Mid-band spectrum is key to providing an ideal mix of coverage and capacity for 5G networks.
This suggests that the 5G experience is likely to be far more variable, depending on where you live, than LTE may have been. Customers in dense urban areas could see the gigabit speeds 5G promises, while customers in rural areas will make do with much slower connections. It is not clear how much improvement, if any, is gained by adopting 5G standards using LTE spectrum. It’s also not clear which company will provide the strongest overall service from its spectrum allocations right now. But it’s entirely possible that, outside of major cities and towns, 5G service in rural or semi-rural areas may not exceed LTE speeds. 5G service will come to rural areas, but mmWave service, specifically, may not. That will depend on the individual carriers and the decisions they make around small cell allocations.