5G: Not So Fast

Tech Vision is LSA’s series that spotlights emerging tech. Running semi-weekly, it reports on new technologies that LSA analysts track, including strategic implications for local commerce. See the full series here.

5G is one of the runaway buzzwords of 2019, and it shows no signs of stopping. All the hype and carrier marketing around 5G has abstracted it to a certain degree, resulting in confusion about what it is, and the benefits it will bring. This applies to local commerce as we’ve examined.

The short version is that the technology’s millimeter wave orientation (low-range, high frequency), require densely clustered base stations. So rather than cell towers that are miles apart, they’ll be hundreds of meters apart and blanket urban areas in a sort or mesh network.

That has lots of implications for triangulating location signals that have millimeter level precision, compared to the meter-level accuracy of 4G. The latter is thrown off even more in urban canyons where satellite signals degrade as they bounce off buildings like a pinball.

Add it all up and longstanding areas of local ad targeting and attribution could be empowered by 5G’s greater accuracy and reliability. 5G also opens the door for new modalities for local search and discovery such as visual navigation or audible cues via hearables .

Sliding Scale

But one of the things that makes all of the above possible will also challenge its deployment. The densely clustered base stations examined above make 5G network deployment a logistically involved process. That and other practical realities will make 5G rollouts take years.

This was all supported recently in a report from network analysis firm Opensignal. It asserts that carriers won’t be able to provide 5G at advertised speeds across their networks. There will be uneven quality and wildly varying “versions” of 5G, some not much better than 4G.

For example, U.S. carriers don’t have enough of the right wireless spectrum for ubiquitous 5G. They’ll have it in limited-range pockets (for the reasons mentioned above), which they’ll prioritize in high-impact areas like dense urban environments. Rural areas wont be as fortunate.

It also comes down to issues of network capacity and spectrum availability. Most of the necessary frequencies haven’t been offered to carriers in the U.S. yet, according to the report. The FCC is only beginning to move towards auctioning this “C-band” spectrum.

This means 5G deployments will be shrouded in marketing and semantics. The low-band 5G networks currently being rolled out by AT&T and T-Mobile will operate on the same frequencies they use today for 4G. It will technically be 5G, but not the kind promised in industry hype.

Making matters more confusing, each carrier will deploy a different flavor of 5G. Verizon touts millimeter-wave 5G; Sprint is working on a mid-band version; while AT&T and T-mobile have larger-scale rollouts for a lower-band version. Speeds will vary across the board.

Business Decision

As for mobile hardware, smartphones will increasingly ship with dual chips and dynamically shift between networks for whatever’s the best available signal. Carriers will correspondingly apply “dynamic spectrum sharing” which lets them flip from 4G to 5G as needed.

This practically means that carriers will have to make decisions for high-value customers, areas and experiences where they’ll prioritize access. That could involve streaming video as well as gaming — two key use cases where the respective industries are banking on 5G.

“It means you can support either more people watching the same quality of video, the same number of people watching higher quality video, or some combination,” Opensignal Lead Analyst Ian Fogg told Fast Company. “How you as a carrier decide to package that up is a business decision.”

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