Three years into the rollout of 5G, most people still don’t have access to high-speed 5G service. Why?
The first 5G mobile towers went online in 2018, and in March 2019 South Korea became the first country to offer 5G service. However, the expansion of 5G service has been slow, especially compared with previous transitions from 3G to 4G and then to 4G LTE. Three years in, 5G coverage has yet to break 50% of wireless consumers. In contrast, at the equivalent stage of 4G rollout, British mobile carrier and internet provider EE was providing 4G service to more than 80% of customers.
In Canada, Bell has promised to “work towards offering 5G+ coverage to approximately 40% of the Canadian population by the end of 2022.” And yet, in August of 2022, data from OpenSignal showed that while Rogers was the leading wireless provider of 5G in terms of availability, Rogers users spent only 13.3% of their time on active 5G networks. (Bell ranked second at 11.9% and Telus third at 11.4%.)
In contrast, the United States was first in the world for 5G availability in late 2021, at 49.2%. However, because 5G in the United States has been largely rolled out using Dynamic Signal Sharing (DSS), many current US 5G users are limited to 4G download speeds. Additionally, 5G networks in some American cities are actually slower than 4G networks — a far cry from the 20x — 100x speed increases that US consumers were initially promised.
The result? A see-saw of 5G coverage where American wireless subscribers have much higher access to 5G at very low speeds and Canadians have much higher download speeds with much lower coverage: OpenSignal reporting ranked the United States 30th in the world for download speed in Q4 2021, compared with Canada in 4th.
If the rollout of 4G went so smoothly, what’s the hang-up? It turns out that the logistical obstacles to the rollout of 5G have been more numerous and complex.
Top Logistical Obstacles to 5G Deployment in North America
At the risk of stating the obvious, COVID-19 was a huge obstacle to the timely deployment of 5G that nobody could have foreseen, delaying rollouts of 5G around the world.
2. Mandated switch-out of Huawei equipment in North America and Europe
The United States, Canada, and Europe, Australia, and New Zealand have all passed bans on the installation of Huawei equipment into 5G networks. However, this required extra effort in some markets to remove and replace existing Huawei equipment.
3. Earliest 5G boxes were big and heavy
4G network boxes were comparatively light and easy to install, often not requiring street closures or structural reinforcement. However, the first boxes bought by Vodafone for its 5G deployment weighed 60 kilograms (132 pounds)! This often required steel work and heavy equipment to install in a safe manner. 5G equipment has slimmed down considerably since then; the units Vodafone now buys from Ericsson weigh less than 30kg (66 pounds) and can be installed more easily.
4. Lower population density = fewer mobile sites
One big reason 5G has higher penetration in Asian markets is because countries like China and South Korea already had a very dense grid of mobile sites. In North America, the grid is adequate for provision of 3G and 4G, but distances between sites are often too great for 5G frequencies, which don’t travel as far because of shorter signal wavelengths.
This led ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt to call for increased government investment in 5G base stations in a February op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. According to Schmidt, China has already built more than 1 billion base stations, compared with less than 100,000 in the U.S. — which is similar in size geographically but is 4.5 times smaller in terms of population.
5. Building “cloud-native” 5G systems
Due to the increasing size and complexity of networks, most operators want to make full use of technologies that make networks more efficient and allow for network automation. However, analysts say that so far the transition is proving to be tough.
6. Concerns about interference with GPS and other network devices
In September, Ligado Networks announced that it was putting plans to launch 5G networks in parts of Virginia on hold after the US government’s National Academics of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released a report that raised questions about whether Ligado’s planned network would interfere with GPS and other existing devices and networks. However, the validity of these concerns are currently being hotly contested.
In a May FCC hearing, U.S. military officials reported that Ligado’s 5G network plans could interfere with Pentagon satellite signals. In response, a spokesperson for FCC Chairman Ajit Pai called the military’s concerns “baseless fear mongering”. The Pentagon isn’t alone in its concerns, though. In late 2021, the FAA put out two directives about concerns over interference with radar altimeter interference.
The Outlook for 2023? Hazy
Carriers are optimistic about 5G rollouts in the coming years. But with global markets in decline and supply chain disruptions set to continue into 2023, it’s anyone’s guess how 5G rollouts will go in the coming year.