With so much of the industry focused on the promise of 5G it’s surprising that this week we have heard from two major operators —Sprint and AT&T — about improvements to their 4G networks instead of updates on their progress with 5G.
AT&T said today that it has launched what it calls “5G Evolution” technology in 117 new markets, bringing the total number of markets with 5G Evolution to 141.
But 5G Evolution is really just a more advanced version of LTE. It promises twice the speed (400 Mb/s) of the company’s existing LTE network by using technologies such as small cells, carrier aggregation, 4×4 multiple input multiple output (MIMO), and 256 QAM. AT&T also said it was making LTE-LAA (licensed assisted access) technology available in three new markets bringing the total number of LTE-LAA markets to seven. The company said it plans to have LTE-LAA in 24 markets this year. LTE-LAA uses unlicensed spectrum and can deliver theoretical speeds to compatible devices of up to 1 Gb/s.
AT&T is positioning this news as a stepping stone to its eventual nationwide mobile 5G network. According to Roger Entner, analyst and founder of Recon Analytics, the company is doing this so that when 5G does roll out later this year, consumers don’t experience the huge fallback when they leave the 5G network and roam on 4G. “4G is the fallback for 5G. And what you don’t want is that people fall off a cliff,” Entner said. “They don’t want the dramatic difference.”
Sprint also announced improvements to its network this week with CTO John Saw saying in a blog post that the company has added capabilities to its macro cell sites so more of them are using three spectrum bands — 800 MHz, 1.9 GHz, and 2.5 GHz — to give customers faster download speeds. But again, this improvement is to Sprint’s 4G network and is not 5G.
Sprint said that by using the three spectrum bands, the network can get 42 Mb/s according to an Ookla Speedtest report. Saw also said that the company has distributed nearly 200,000 “Magic Boxes,” which are the portable small cells the company is providing to users to improve its coverage.
Iain Gillott, analyst and founder of iGR, said that carriers are realizing that many of the big benefits for 5G, such as low latency and big broadband speeds, won’t be that noticeable to the average consumer. “Am I going to notice low latency?” Gillott asked. “Probably not.”
The most touted 5G use cases currently are autonomous cars, augmented reality, and virtual reality, but those use cases may take some time to gain traction. “Unless carriers come up with more use cases, a lot of consumers may not see [the value of 5G],” Gillott added.
Entner believes that 5G may get the most traction with enterprises — at least in the beginning. “5G with edge computing will make a difference,” he said, adding that AR/VR will be much better when it’s used on a 5G network rather than 4G.
Is 5G Better Than 4G?
Even some vendors are questioning the value of 5G deployments. According to various reports from analysts and media covering Huawei’s Analyst Summit 2018 in China this week, the company’s rotating Chairman Eric Xu told the audience that for consumers who are looking for faster speeds, there is no fundamental difference between 4G and 5G. And Xu added that he doesn’t see a lot of use cases so far that can be only supported by 5G.
But Xu’s comments seem out of line with the company’s news announcements. At the event this week, Huawei announced a 5G SingleRAN product that the company claims can support a wide range of services and uses artificial intelligence (AI) for automation. It also said it plans to release a 5G smartphone in the second half of 2019.
Gillott said this is probably a case of the “Haves and Have Nots,” noting that the FCC’s recent vote in favor of banning federal funds from being spent with Huawei and ZTE because they have been determined a potential risk to U.S. national security is probably behind these comments.
“If you have a 5G solution and are on the path, you can tout it and talk about it,” he said.
And Entner noted that there are many regions of the world that are still spending a lot on LTE networking equipment. “Don’t forget there is a lot of business for LTE for some years to come,” he said.