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When I was working at AWS, around 2017 we started getting excited pitches from companies who wanted to be part of the 5G build-out, saying that obviously there’d be lots of opportunities for public-cloud providers. But I never walked away convinced. Either I didn’t believe the supposed customers really needed what 5G offered, or I didn’t believe the opportunity was anywhere near big enough to justify the trillion-dollar build-out investment. Six years later, I still don’t. This is a report on a little online survey I ran, looking for actual real-world 5G impact to see if I was wrong.
[Note: When I say “G” or “M” I’m talking about Gbits or Mbits/second.]
Why 5G? · Here’s why the 5G vendors say we need their product:
Faster connections — there is talk of 10G!
More bandwidth, so you can provide data in crowded places like sports stadiums.
Lower latency, because you can put servers in base stations, which in particular could be useful for self-driven vehicles. AWS offers infrastructure: see AWS Wavelength.
Why not? · Disclosure: I’m affected by my personal experience. My home office is on our boat, anchored in central Vancouver. I pay my mobile provider more for extra data and do all my work via a hotspot on my aging Pixel 4. The phone calls what it sees “LTE+” (I don’t claim to understand what that means) which de facto gives me lots of tens of Mbits/sec, plenty enough for heavy Internet geeking with streamed background music, and watching ball games (remember, I’m semi-retired). Interestingly, the Marina also provides a WiFi signal which is pathetically slow and unreliable compared to the 4G data; the notion that WiFi is the gold standard for wireless Internet is pretty well over.
Our family has a cabin an hour’s boat-ride from Vancouver on the shores of Howe Sound. We have “Smart Hub Rural Internet”, which delivers a solid 15-25M down and 10+ up. Plenty enough for four people.
So, I’m having trouble seeing what problem I have that 5G will solve.
Speed? · Granted: Like many people, at home we have “fiber” Internet which offers hundreds of M so that our family of four can all stream and game at the same time, no problem.
Question: How often do you need more than the 50M or so LTE offers in a situation where it’s cheaper to provide it with 5G than with a wired connection?
Bandwidth · This is one that I can sort of believe in. In a football stadium or a big conference keynote, it is possible to provide decent WiFi coverage (I’ve experienced it). Is 5G a cheaper or better way to do that? I don’t know, but it doesn’t sound crazy.
Latency · Obviously, this would be a big deal for online PvP gaming, although rollback netcode is producing remarkably good results these days. And then there’s the autonomous-vehicle space. So, once again, doesn’t sound crazy.
The gaming angle sounds more plausible than self-driving, which (I think) would need reliable 5G along the whole route — nobody wants a self-driving feature that randomly cuts in and out as you zip down the road.
The whole low-latency thing is based on co-locating compute in the (many, many) 5G base stations. Note the reference to AWS Wavelength above; having a public-cloud provider run the compute makes all sorts of sense to me. But still, I do wonder about the economics; all that compute is going to add up.
The real question · 5G started rolling out in the spring of 2019, so it’s had three years to make a difference. I don’t personally know anyone whose life has been changed by 5G. Yes, family members with newer phones occasionally report that the status bar says “5G”, but I don’t hear that they’re having a different experience.
But I don’t know that many people. So I asked the Internet.
Last time I checked that tweet had around 52,000 impressions, people who had a chance to pipe up and relate their personal or professional experience of 5G. Lots did, so I’ll use a few of the more clueful responses to support this narrative.
Also, note that my readership includes a whole lot of professional software developers. So, let’s see what they say about new kinds of applications and services that 5G has brought to the table.
Theme: 5G vs wired · Does it make sense to replace your existing wired Internet with 5G? As always, the answer is “it depends” but one common theme emerges: If your wired connection is lousy, 5G might be a win.
Or maybe 5G is just better?
Others disagree, but point out that fiber may not be an option.
I wonder about the economics of deploying 5G vs fiber. It’s worth considering that 5G replaces the last mile and reduces the on-prem installation work to zero.
Theme: Better coverage · Some report generally better coverage on 5G. Seems a little strange given the early stage of the build-out, but here they are.
Theme: Hotspotting · Here are claims that hotspotting is better on 5G.
Not everyone agrees.
I’m dubious too, probably because I live (and wrote this essay, including gathering and editing all the screenshots) on a 4G hotspot.
Theme: Rural coverage · As a special case, I got multiple reports of better rural coverage. Which, once again, is surprising — I thought 5G’s sweet spot was short-range applications.
Theme: Crowded places · There is personal experience of Internet-in-a-crowded-place. There was another, mentioning rugby, but I seem to have lost it.
Theme: Skeptics · Some people share my general skepticism.
Now the developers · My online following isn’t huge, but it contains quite a few senior software developers, people who build high-impact applications and services for Big Tech corporations and who work on foundational open-source projects. So, let’s hear about what they’re building that’s enabled by 5G technology.
Exactly one such developer weighed in on the subject.
I had to go look up what “ATSSS” is. Here you go: “3GPP has started to standardize the Access Traffic Steering, Switching & Splitting (ATSSS) function to enable 5G devices to use different types of access networks, including Wi-Fi. The ATSSS service leverages the Multipath TCP protocol to enable 5G devices to simultaneously utilize different access networks.”
Doesn’t sound terrible. Life-changing? Your call. Um, any other developers out there working on things that will move the needle?
Then there’s this · John Gruber links to and expands on a WSJ report on how 5G burns your mobile’s battery faster than LTE, and offers advice for how to disable it, because: There is nothing I do with my iPhone — nothing — where I find LTE even just a little bit “too slow”.
What I think · Well, they built 4G and it worked pretty well. So they had to build 5G, didn’t they? It’s perfectly possible that, ten years from now, we’ll look in the rear-view and say “That was a good investment.” I wouldn’t bet on it, but it’s possible.