Broadband Companies Say 5G Will Change The World. Will It?

Dec 17, 2019

Telecommunications companies are putting a lot of energy into promoting 5G, the wireless service purported to be faster and better than what customers have ever had before. 

Earlier this month, T-Mobile rolled out 5G nationwide for its customers, with flashy ads and even a dedicated podcast. Verizon 5G is available in "parts of select cities," according to its website, and last week, AT&T launched 5G for customers in 10 metro areas, including Pittsburgh.

Dave Kerr, AT&T's president of external affairs in Pennsylvania, said his company's 5G technology will reduce network communication lags, called latency.

"Think about gaming and entertainment, that's really going to be changed," Kerr said. "And the potential of 5G is really across all segments of the market, it's going to open up a whole world of opportunity."

But Sascha Meinrath, Palmer Chair in Telecommunications at Penn State University, is skeptical of all the attention broadband companies are putting on 5G.

"There's hype, and there's overhype, and then way beyond overhype there's the 5G [public relations] campaign," Meinrath said. "What many people, perhaps the majority of people will end up receiving is a marginal and unnoticeable upgrade."

Under certain circumstances 5G can be faster, Meinrath said, but the experience of most everyday users is yet to be determined. On a technical level, 5G breaks up a large cellular network into smaller sites that allow for more capacity. However, Meinrath said, this will likely be noticeable only for customers in urban environments.

"Whereas in rural areas, especially ones that don't have a whole lot of towers to begin with, the change between 4 and 5G may be marginal," he said.

Kerr with AT&T said the company is being realistic with its customers. Right now, 5G is only available on a certain type of Samsung Galaxy, with plans to expand both device-wise and geographically in the near future. 

"What we're not launching is the promise of super, super, super fast speeds," Kerr said. "But the speeds are coming."

In a statement, senior vice president of radio network engineering and development for T-Mobile, Mark McDiarmid, said reservations about 5G are completely fair.

"In the short term, [Meinrath] is 1,000% right," said McDiarmid, whose company released the podcast devoted to promoting its 5G network. "Verizon and AT&T have over-hyped, over-advertised and under-delivered on 5G."