May Editorial: The current state of 5G wireless service

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On April 3, Verizon announced that it has turned on its 5G wireless networks in Chicago and Minneapolis—the first two cities to receive the network that will work with the next generation of connected devices. Verizon achieved that milestone a week ahead of schedule, and the news followed the company rolling out its “5G Home” service this past fall to parts of Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and Sacramento. Verizon soon followed that up by announcing 20 more 5G cities on April 25, and more are to come later this year. Those 20 cities are: Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dallas, Des Moines, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Little Rock, Memphis, Phoenix, Providence, San Diego, Salt Lake City, and Washington D.C.

Sadly, my home city of Madison, WI didn't make the cut, but I figure it will join the club fairly soon.

Verizon has been battling AT&T for 5G wireless service since at least the start of 2017. In early April, AT&T made 5G headlines of its own the same week of Verizon’s April announcement, declaring itself the first 5G carrier in the U.S. to reach gigabit speeds via NetGear’s 5G hotspot. Two days later, AT&T released a statement claiming it has the fastest wireless network in the nation, citing third-party network-testing company Ookla’s findings that AT&T’s top average download speed of 40.7Mbps was best among carriers in the first quarter of 2019, and that AT&T’s speeds improved by more than 15% between January and March of this year.

Overall, most laypersons would say the 5G rollout has been underwhelming so far, in large part because the gigabit-class speed that’s been teased appears to still be a long way away. The hardware must catch up first. AT&T’s announcement is good news, but only a stepping stone. Before you, me, and everyone else can really start to experience the potential of 5G wireless service, we need 5G smartphones and WiFi 6-equipped hotspots—along with more cities where 5G service is available. Only a select number of smartphones will support 5G at first. As of right now, Motorola’s Moto Z3 is the only compatible device, requiring an accessory to connect to a 5G network. Samsung will launch a Galaxy S10 5G model later this spring that will initially be exclusive to Verizon. Meanwhile, rumor has it that Apple might not be able to ship a 5G iPhone until 2021.

Obviously, having 5G service available to more of the country would be another big help, and there appears to be headway on that. Also on April 3, CNBC reported that Verizon’s CEO said the company will activate an additional 30 markets during 2019, so one would think their April 25 announcement would leave 10 more cities/metro areas left to be announced this year. AT&T’s 5G+ network is currently available in 12 markets, and the company plans to combine its 5G and LTE services into a single connection later this year, which should boost speeds further. T-Mobile and Sprint haven’t activated 5G yet, but plan to roll it out later this year as they move forward with their merger.

With all the talk from these wireless providers about rolling out their 5G service, it’s hard to be patient. But I’d rather those carriers take their time to get it right. My only concern in this ‘race to 5G’ is that in the essence of time, these cellular providers may be overlooking some of the due diligence required to ensure that their 5G service will perform as expected for the long haul. I hope they’re not rolling out beta versions of their service en masse that will soon need costly upgrades. Here’s hoping these providers have had vetted test and measurement engineers integrated from the start.

Mike Hockett, Evaluation Engineering Editor-in-ChiefMike Hockett, Evaluation Engineering Editor-in-ChiefWhile I’m on this topic, I’ll promote that our June print issue will include a special report on the topic of RF/microwave testing, covering trends in the market and technology, challenges that vendors are facing, and what new solutions those vendors have rolled out. That report will certainly address the key issues facing 5G testing as the infrastructure for widespread 5G continues to progress.

As always, feel free to shoot me an email if you have an idea for an article, or let me know if there’s a test & measurement topic you’d like us to cover here at Evaluation Engineering.

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