In the newest commercial for Verizon’s 5G service, former Vikings receiver Randy Moss tries to run a 40-yard dash faster than a phone downloads a TV show.
The phone wins. “Freaky fast,” Moss says.
For Minnesotans and people around the U.S., that may be the fastest thing they see 5G do for awhile.
The telecom industry is once again advancing the capacity and speed of its networks, something it has done once a decade since the cellphone’s invention in 1979. But differently from the previous jumps, the move to the fifth generation of network technology, simply called 5G, is caught up in geopolitical and health debates that are beyond the industry’s control.
The result is far more noise and confusion about the promise and perils of 5G, with the upgrade carrying greater than usual risk for companies and head-scratching choices for consumers.
“The deployment for 5G will be deliciously messy,” says Jason Leigh, a telecom industry analyst at IDC, a market research firm. “I’m excited about what 5G can do, but it’s not an easy road forward.”
For the first time, Minnesota is in the middle of the action at the start of a generational change in telecom. Verizon, the nation’s largest cellphone service provider, has already put up 5G cells in the downtowns of both Minneapolis and St. Paul. And U.S. Bank Stadium is one of 13 around the NFL this year that will have 5G antennas beaming data to fans.
But it’s a chicken-and-egg business, with carriers doing just part of the work. Cellphone makers have to produce new phones that work on the new networks. At the moment, Twin Cities shoppers can get one 5G Samsung smartphone, at around $1,300, or modify a Motorola one with a special 5G attachment that costs $200.
When Apple Inc., the leading seller of smartphones in the U.S., announces its new 2019 lineup Tuesday, it is not expected to include a 5G model. Michael Olson, telecom analyst at Piper Jaffray in Minneapolis, told investors last week that a survey he recently did of iPhone customers showed interest was building for a 5G model despite “limited 5G marketing/chatter” by the firm.
When they were first created, cellphones used analog signals as radios have for a century. But a decade later, innovators created a standard for sending digital signals over radio waves and the first digital-based cellphones went on sale in Europe. That put the wireless industry on the same path as the computer industry, where the pace of innovation is guided by advances in chips and software.
In the years since, that advance became known as the second generation of wireless technology. Technical standards for the third generation — which allowed enough data exchange to permit e-mail and internet browsing — were set in 1999. But it took several years for networks and devices to evolve.
In the U.S., the 3G turning point has been widely marked as happening in 2008, when Apple released the 3G version of the iPhone.
The jump to 4G, in which the signal capacity expanded so that video could be easily watched, happened more rapidly. By 2011, many networks in the U.S. were advancing to 4G and cellphones that could use such signals were becoming prevalent. Apple rolled out its first 4G model, the iPhone 5, in 2012.
5G could be ‘Model T’ game changer
The hype around 5G has been building almost since then, though it took until last year for technical standards to be set.
Greg Held, vice president at One Way Wireless Construction, a Shakopee-based installer of cell antennas and towers, heard some of it at a recent trade show. “Whether it’s true or not, this guy told me, ‘You know how the Model T changed the world in the automobile industry? 5G is going to do the same for wireless communication,’ ” Held said.
The exact jump in data capacity and network speed that people get with 5G will vary by location. But tests earlier this year of the Samsung 5G smartphone on Verizon’s network at U.S. Bank Stadium and on downtown Minneapolis streets showed it could download data at speeds exceeding 1,000 megabits, or 1 gigabit, per second. That’s 20 times the speeds that are common on 4G networks.
And there’s a technical issue that shapes performance. Many 5G networks will use a portion of the radio spectrum where waves move at greater frequency. Those waves will have the most speed improvement, but they travel a shorter distance and can be blocked by walls and even trees. As a result, carriers must put up more antennas to send and receive them. Verizon and AT&T are using the higher-frequency technology, known as millimeter wave.
But T-Mobile appears likely to create a 5G network in a part of the spectrum where waves travel at what are known as mid-frequency rates. Its network may not be as speedy, but its signals may travel farther and contend with less interference.
That’s the compromise that happened in South Korea, where its three carriers this spring launched 5G service at the same time as Verizon and local manufacturers Samsung and LG rolled out 5G phones. Two million South Koreans have signed up since, a faster migration than happened with 4G in that country in 2011 and 2012.
Debate sparked on health effects
Those higher-frequency waves are at the center of the latest arguments over the health effects of cellphone signals. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., conducted a hearing on the matter earlier this year and pressed the Federal Communications Commission to require more extensive testing on equipment and phones.
Devra Davis, a Wyoming-based scientist and university lecturer, said the radiation testing done by cellphone makers on devices has never been adequate. She wants regulators around the world to pump the brakes on wireless 5G.
“There’s a great deal to be said for the speed of 5G when it’s wired and safe from any impact on the environment and public health,” she said. “More research needs to be done on how to make 5G safe in the ambient environment.”
That debate has gotten mixed with geopolitics. Media in Russia, a country with no manufacturers at the telecom industry’s highest levels, have aggressively stoked fears about 5G devices. Those efforts, and counter-reporting about them, threaten to overwhelm a sophisticated discussion about the risks, such as one raised by a Chicago Tribune investigation of the radiation effects of existing 4G smartphones.
Trade battle complicates 5G
Meanwhile, 5G is also a hot potato in the U.S. trade battle with China. The U.S. has stopped U.S. companies from working with Huawei — China’s top maker of telecom equipment and a leading developer, along with firms like Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung, of 5G technology. The Trump administration also has pressed other countries not to use 5G equipment from Huawei, claiming the Chinese government wields influence over the company and would try to use its devices for spying. Huawei executives say that’s not so.
For U.S. consumers, that battle may have little effect since Huawei doesn’t sell phones to them. And only small carriers in the U.S. use Huawei equipment, which tends to be cheaper. “The big U.S. operators already have their relationships with Ericsson and Nokia,” analyst Leigh said.
The rollout of Apple’s 5G phone is likely to be the bellwether moment for the technology with American consumers. Gene Munster, chief of Minneapolis-based Loup Ventures and a longtime analyst of Apple, puts an 80% chance on Apple rolling out a 5G iPhone next fall.
“There’s been more talk about 5G than any other network advancement and the question really is why,” Munster said. “The answer is that it will exceed the hype. It’s that significant in allowing us to change the world around us through faster data, not just watching video faster on the phone. I believe the hype is justified, but you have this natural air pocket between the hype and the substance and that is going to take a couple of years to fill.”
Between now and then, equipment suppliers and builders will be busy. Clearfield Inc., a Minneapolis-based manufacturer of equipment for connecting fiber, will introduce new 5G products later this month. “We’re right in the midst of all of this,” said Kevin Morgan, its top marketer. “The main goal of a wireless network is to get the signals off the over-the-air interface and onto a fiber network as soon as possible.”
And the industry is already turning the crank on the next generation.
Finland hosted a “6G Summit” in March that attracted 250 telecom engineers and researchers from around the world. Companies in China and South Korea subsequently announced research centers to work on 6G technologies, with a rollout goal about a decade from now.
Target download speed: about 100 times faster than 5G. Or a video download in the time Randy Moss goes a half-step in full sprint.