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3 Myths on 5G Debunked

portableA lot has been written about 5G and its promise for changing the world -- a world with unlimited bandwidth everywhere, where everything is connected, and cars drive us. But beyond the hype and hyperbole, a few myths have crept up, some even encouraged by carriers.

The progression from 0G to 5G isn't a linear journey of small improvements. It's a crazy zigzag of major changes in technology and standards, as well as seismic shifts in the carrier space. As a result, we've seen fundamental changes in how people live, work, and play -- yet we're still at the early stages of understanding the implications to the business world and society at large.

So it's no wonder things get complicated when we start talking about a new-generation network, and that's exactly what 5G is -- a new generation, not an upgrade from one to the next.

Let's take a few minutes to discuss the three most prevalent myths surrounding 5G.

Myth #1: 5G Is Already Here

Some of you may be asking if this is really a common belief. I think it is, as we have a major carrier -- AT&T -- representing current capabilities as 5G.

Even as AT&T admits that 5G standards aren't finalized, it confuses the issue with its "5G Evolution" push. In a few areas in Indianapolis and Austin, Texas, users today can experience 5G Evolution with Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8+ phones. The problem is, 5G Evolution is neither 5G nor an evolution to 5G, but really just another version of 4G. 5G is a different animal to 4G, and as such will require a completely new network as well as end-user devices that phone manufacturers haven't even built yet.

Of course, AT&T isn't the only one to confuse the landscape. Throughout the current decade, carriers have all sought to rebrand their networks as being better than the competition. They started adding words like "advanced," "enhanced," and "plus" to their 4G or LTE branding, leading Verizon Communications CEO Lowell McAdam to joke back in 2011: "With all the renaming of networks and technologies, we thought about naming ours 6G, but that's not really our style, so we'll stick with 4G."

But carriers seeking to outdo each other with naming conventions is part of the problem. All this does is confuse the marketplace and extend the notion that the networks are whatever carriers want to call them.

In a world of outlandish claims and downright misleading marketing, it's surprising that the voice of reason comes from T-Mobile CEO John Legere, seemingly the only adult in the room. I won't say Legere has redefined what a CEO should look and sound like, but it's certainly working for him. Beyond the long hair, colorful attire, and salty language is a clear message he delivers directly to his customers: nationwide real 5G in two to three years, "No BS."

Myth #2: You Need 5G for the Internet of Things

Writing about two hot topics together is better than focusing on just one -- and 5G and IoT kind of do fit together in such a way that they begin to appear inseparable. The problem is, IoT as a concept doesn't require 5G. In fact, the explosion of IoT is happening years ahead of nationwide 5G. But it seems like the two are mentioned together as if they are joined at the hip.

5G promises high bandwidth and low latency, neither of which are required by a majority of IoT applications. I'm seeing IoT applications running perfectly fine on 2G technologies, though upgrades to 3G are being forced as old networks are closed down. A temperature sensor on a refrigerated truck doesn't need to send huge amounts of data, doesn't care about latency, and may only need to send data every five to 10 minutes. 2G works for this purpose.

Granted, a standard built from the ground up to support billions of devices is a much better fit than 2G, 3G, or even 4G for handling the IoT explosion. A modern standard is very much needed to address the sheer volume of connections, security, and better handling of all types of traffic. I'm not saying 5G won't help drive IoT, but I am saying it's not required for many IoT needs.

Not all applications require high bandwidth and low latency. Autonomous vehicles are top of mind when thinking about IoT and 5G. But as I mentioned in a previous No Jitter post, for a vehicle to be truly autonomous it needs to be capable of operating without a network connection. Countless other applications will benefit greatly from 5G, though the magic of IoT isn't in the collection of the data itself, but what is done with that data and how it is communicated. But that's the topic of another post.

Myth #3: 5G = 1 Gbps+

For most folks who aren't following 5G closely but have heard of it, the technology's promise is having 1-Gbps (or faster) capability on their mobile devices. While this will come, probably not anytime soon.

First of all, the carriers historically haven't delivered the theoretical capabilities of the standard. This is due to a combination of hardware limitations, environmental inhibitors, and market demand. For instance, the speeds we think of as being ushered in by 5G are, in fact, possible with 4G. Even if the carriers built out the network to support 1-Gbps speeds and you were standing under a tower with enough juice to access and enough processing power to utilize it, a a single device can consume only so much bandwidth at one time. And in the mobile space, for most devices, that is what we are talking about: one connection for one device.

And that brings us to the fixed space or other areas where many devices share a single network connection. Whether in a mobile workspace, home, or office, a speed of 1 Gbps or higher is attractive and will compete, if not replace, many landline connections.

No myth here: 5G, 6G, and beyond will change the industry in significant and positive ways -- like we've never before seen.

For a deep dive into 5G, including a technical briefing and discussion of applications, please attend my Sept. 13 session at the upcoming SCTC Fall Conference in Seattle.

"SCTC Perspectives" is written by members of the Society of Communications Technology Consultants, an international organization of independent information and communications technology professionals serving clients in all business sectors and government worldwide.