Fifth generation wireless (5G) has quickly become a sort of magical carrot on a stick in tech and telecom policy circles. Telecom lobbyists have spent the better part of the last year trying to claim that unless we gut consumer protections like net neutrality, America will somehow fall behind in the “race” to 5G. U.S. companies have also convinced the government that if America doesn’t want to lose said race (whatever that means), we most assuredly should ban cheaper Chinese networking gear from the country (the protectionism of this play is entirely coincidental, they’ll insist).
More recently, Sprint and T-Mobile have been telling anybody who’ll listen that their competition-eroding merger is the only way to ensure that America doesn’t fall behind on 5G. Despite the fact that both companies are on record clearly stating they both could have easily deployed 5G independently, that same argument popped up again this week during merger hearings on Capital Hill. As did the well-weathered claim that the merger is essential if America wants to beat China in the rush to 5G:
“In prepared remarks, T-Mobile CEO John Legere ties the proposed merger to “American innovation and national security,” and specifically argues that the merger will be necessary to make the United States a leader on next-generation 5G network technology. “The stakes are high — nothing less than preserving our edge in innovation and maintaining our security,” he plans to say.
The CEO plans to say that the US is “falling behind” China on 5G, which he says “has taken a global lead in the race.” He says in the remarks that only a newly merged T-Mobile will be able to compete.
Of course this is all bullshit. As we’ve noted previously, the “race to 5G” rhetoric is largely nonsense crafted by hardware vendors looking to sell more network hardware, and wireless carriers excited about using the upgrades to justify high prices and spur lagging phone and tablet sales. It’s not a race, there’s no way to measure a winner (especially given our broadband maps are hot garbage due to regulatory capture), and the only folks likely to win this particular game are the companies selling 5G connections and hardware. 5G is important, but it’s not paradigm-rattling important.
5G will be a very useful evolution in wireless in that it will provide faster, lower latency networks that are more easily managed (in large part due to virtualization technology). But 5G is not some mystical fucking panacea. It can’t, for example, magically compensate for the reduction in competition in the wake of the T-Mobile deal, a bit of mathematics that never ends well for consumers (go ask a Canadian). It won’t miraculously compensate for regulatory capture at the Ajit Pai FCC. Given these and other broken market realities, it’s unlikely to result in what consumers really want: lower prices.
In tech policy circles, 5G has become the equivalent of lobbying and policy mysticism, entirely untethered from factual reality. You just sprinkle a little bit on your argument and you can use it to justify pretty much anything. Blake Reid, a Professor at Colorado Law, probably put it best:
5G is magic policy dust that folks are now just trying to sprinkle on anything they’d like to justify. https://t.co/jO7tzqmMrW
— Blake Reid👨🏻💻 (@blakereid) February 13, 2019
Again, it’s perfectly fine if you’re realistically enthusiastic about the modest improvements 5G brings. But carriers have been trying to pass the technology off as the next industrial revolution and the second coming. Not just because they want to sell product, but because they’re using it as a regulatory carrot on a stick, claiming that unless you give big telecom “X” (X=less oversight, more subsidies, merger approval, kill net neutrality), America will somehow fall behind in the nonexistent race to 5G. If we’re to follow down that rabbit hole ignoring the broadband industry problems 5G won’t magically fix, folks aren’t going to be particularly thrilled by the end result.