AT&T's 5G 'Arrives,' Quickly Shows Why 5G Won't Be A Panacea For Broadband Competition
from the blistering-hype dept
We’ve talked a lot about how while fifth-generation “5G” wireless will deliver faster and lower latency networks, its role as some kind of broadband panacea has been severely over-hyped. For one, it’s going to take years before users actually see a healthy selection of actual 5G devices in the wild (Apple’s 5G iPhone won’t launch until 2020 or later). And despite carrier promises, deploying these upgrades to traditionally ignored rural and less affluent urban markets will take years.
Even then, these same companies’ monopoly over cell tower connectivity in many areas will only ensure prices remain high. That’s all compounded by the looming Sprint, T-Mobile merger, which will reduce the number of overall competitors in wireless from four to three, something that never ends well for price competition should you actually bother to study telecom history (especially US telecom history).
None of this has stopped wireless carriers, network gear makers, and stenographing news outlets from heralding 5G as an almost mystical panacea. A panacea that’s going to single-handedly birth the smart cities and cars of tomorrow and result in us all (I’m told) working four day work weeks. Of course more quietly, even Wall Street has acknowledged that many of these promises are over-hyped as even initial 5G marketing tech demos under deliver on unrealistic industry promises. To be clear 5G is a good thing. But it’s not fucking magic.
This week, AT&T made a lot of waves by announcing it will be the first to “launch” 5G next week in select cities. Even AT&T, a company with a bad habit of redefining what a “launched” broadband market actually means, chose its words carefully in terms of managing user expectations:
“We’ve worked closely with our technology suppliers to reach this mobile 5G milestone. While the initial launch starts small and will be limited, as the 5G ecosystem evolves customers will see enhancements in coverage, speeds and devices.
“This is the first taste of the mobile 5G era,” said Andre Fuetsch, president, AT&T Labs and chief technology officer. “Being first, you can expect us to evolve very quickly. It’s early on the 5G journey and we’re ready to learn fast and continually iterate in the months ahead.”
The caveats aren’t subtle. For one, the new 5G service is only initially going to be made available to users who pony up $500 for a mobile hotspot. And while the service should offer some impressive speeds (depending on regional congestion and throttling) for $70 per month, the service comes with a 15 GB usage cap that all-but ensures the line can’t really be used as a replacement for a traditional fixed-line connection. AT&T can’t be bothered to explain in its press release what happens when you surpass that usage threshold (I’ve inquired), but you’ll either be subject to throttling or steep, additional per gigabyte penalties.
Of course this is all before AT&T imposes all manner of zero rating and other tricks that could potentially give its own Time Warner content an unfair advantage in the market, the degree of which depends on whether AT&T and friends win next February’s looming net neutrality court battle. Should they win that fight, the door is open to not only implementing all manner of underhanded, anti-competitive restrictions, but thanks to the Pai FCC dismantling of transparency requirements, there’s no real punishment for failing to make those limitations clear to the end user.
Historically, telecom giants like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast do absolutely everything in their power to avoid having to seriously compete on price. They also simply adore erecting entirely arbitrary and unnecessary limitations, then charging customers an arm and a leg to avoid them. So while 5G will generally be a positive force (in the sense that faster, more resilient networks are always good), anybody who thinks it won’t suffer from most of the same problems plaguing current American networks hasn’t been paying attention.