5G reality still lags 5G hype in U.S.

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Lots of 5G talk, not so much 5G action at the Mobile World Congress Americas conference in Los Angeles this week. No phones, no 5G-specific services, no schedules for 5G mobile deployments, Verizon’s fixed wireless plans and AT&T’s equally limited real soon now announcements notwithstanding.

Although it has a hemispheric mission, this year’s show was nearly all about U.S. carriers, content and services. The question on the minds of equipment and technology vendors – mostly from asian and european companies – was what will U.S. carriers do?

“5G is not about doing the same things faster. It’s about doing entirely new things”, said Rajeev Suri, CEO of Nokia during a keynote talk. “Blazing speed is important, but it’s not the only thing”. What those new things will be in the U.S. is still largely a mystery. He was one of many speakers who urged U.S. companies and policy makers to make decisions and act fast to maintain leadership.

If anything, AT&T took a step backward. The keynote speech by David Christopher, who heads up AT&T’s consumer wireless business, focused on video. AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner’s content businesses has to move forward right now and its existing 4G network is well suited to video distribution, so Christopher’s 5G brush off makes sense – Wall Street is a lot more interested in today’s revenue than tomorrow’s capital spending plans.

Cameron Coursey, an AT&T product development vice president, pointed to the 2022 to 2025 time frame as a target for meaningful availability of 5G service. Meaningful in the sense that enough 5G infrastructure will be deployed to support new products and services that absolutely depend on it. An AT&T assistant VP, Suzanne Hellwig Navarro, also focused on 4G, saying that the carrier will continue to upgrade its 4G core, a process – and a positioning statement – that AT&T misleadingly calls “5G evolution”.

Self driving cars, and the increasing role of cars as a consumer electronics platform, are an entirely new thing. The automotive industry follows 5G deployment plans closely, and is timing its product development cycle to begin producing data-heavy cars in the 2022 to 2025 time frame, according to Kenichi Murata, a Toyota executive who also spoke at the conference. He was speaking on a global basis, though. There didn’t seem to be any assumption – certainly no expectation stated – that the U.S. would be ready then.