The 5G Playground Squabble

Operators Raise 5G Hype to New Levels

Late last month, Finnish operator Elisa became the latest operator to lay claim to launching the world’s first commercial 5G network (see The Internet of Finns).

The move has come rapidly after similar assertions by a quartet of operators in the Middle East: Etisalat, STC, Ooredoo and du. Comically, their declarations came within days of each other in a clear battle for regional one-upmanship that seemed more akin to a playground squabble than a technology breakthrough.

As well as the minor detail that only one operator can ever actually claim the title of being “first”, these so-called launches all come with a significant flaw: there are no commercial 5G devices yet available to access the networks.

In fact, the first 5G-enabled smartphones probably won’t hit the shelves until at least the middle of 2019, although compatible mobile broadband devices will arrive sooner. So, while the networks may be there — albeit in a limited format — customers are unable to benefit from the faster data speeds and lower latencies being touted by the industry.

In Finland, Elisa has gone as far as selling 5G subscriptions. Two options are available: a €49.90 per month offer with unlimited voice minutes and data, and €44.90 a month for unlimited data but no voice minutes included.

Elisa’s spokesperson told me that its “5G subscriptions give you the best possible service in our 4G network” and that “when you get a 5G device one day, you have your subscription already”.

This is a muddled and confusing message for customers and one that is potentially damaging to an industry that has had its fingers burned in the past by setting unrealistic expectations.

I applaud ambition to lead in new technologies, and there’s nothing wrong with touting early progress or achievements. Indeed, it’s refreshing to hear a European provider seeking to drive the 5G agenda for once. But there’s a big difference between building out a network and offering a commercial service that can actually be used by a significant number of customers.

In my view, some operators’ recent assertions have been motivated by little more than an easy way to gain short-term prestige and bragging rights. With 5G hype already at deafening levels, this is unhelpful to the technology’s development.

Indeed, probing into Elisa’s “launch” reveals further limitations. The service in Finland is being offered via a temporary 3.5 GHz licence ahead of a spectrum auction slated for September. What if, for some reason, the operator is unsuccessful at this tender? Furthermore, the new offering’s coverage in Finland is restricted to the city of Tampere, home to little more than 200,000 people.

Yet this year’s tenuous claims are nothing new. Last year, AT&T drew ridicule for launching a tariff called 5G Evolution. This was a blatant attempt to gain technology kudos over its competitors by simply remarketing 4G services. It brought back memories of T-Mobile’s controversial decision to brand HSPA — a 3G technology — as 4G. It seems some operators just can’t help themselves.

In fairness, network operators are far from the only ones fanning the flames of 5G hysteria. Equipment suppliers and even some governments have been every bit as guilty as a seemingly never-ending conveyor belt of technology breakthroughs and world-first claims shows no sign of slowing down. I’ve lost count of how many companies consider themselves a leader in this rapidly-emerging 5G arms race. No one, it seems, wants to settle for second place.

Yet I caution how advantageous being first really is. For operators, a later launch allows the opportunity to monitor the initial progress of rivals that decide get off to an early start. This could prove a smart move given the alarming absence of business models and compelling uses for 5G. Indeed, I recall when the UK was derided for being later than the likes of Azerbaijan and Guam to launch 4G networks, yet the country is now among the most advanced 4G markets, both in terms of coverage and uptake.

For now though, marketers are having a field day. I wonder which operator will be next to claim a first-in-the-world accolade.