Qualcomm Tech Summit AT&T 5G launch

5G is coming. We've heard that phrase for years now; but it's no longer a concept, it's reality. Carriers around the world are committing to consumer-ready 5G network launches in 2019 (in some cases, early 2019), with Qualcomm Snapdragon 855-powered smartphones that you can actually go buy and use on the network. But that's still months away, and that makes a difference — because demos we're seeing today, in December 2018, aren't compelling yet. That's because, despite the fact that we're oh so close to 5G deployments, we're not quite there yet. But carriers are still really excited to show off 5G, so they're demoing it — to their own detriment.

AT&T 5G tower Verizon 5G tower

At the Qualcomm Tech Summit this week, both Verizon and AT&T demonstrated their newest 5G developments for the press — though they weren't particularly compelling, and they left a lot to be desired. Both carriers have legitimate live 5G networks running here in Maui at Tech Summit, but they're showing off the technology with extremely limited demos with specialized apps and tightly controlled scenarios. Nobody is allowed to interact with the devices or use them for anything but the specific demo purposes. Here's the extent of the demos on display, and how they ostensibly show the carriers' 5G networks:

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  • A Samsung development platform smartphone streaming a 4K video directly from the Verizon 5G tower (it's also sitting in a DeX dock mirroring its screen over HDMI to a TV) — no interface is shown, we don't know what app is providing the stream, or any other parameters.
  • A final version of the Verizon 5G Moto Mod for the Moto Z3, which is running a custom-made app that simulates the act of downloading a certain number of TV episodes, or a 4K movie, or a bunch of music and tells you how long the download takes — we're unable to get any details on what services these files are being pulled from, or use other apps (i.e. Netflix or YouTube) to perform the same tests.
  • A Netgear 5G hotspot from AT&T, which is apparently connected to the local network — we wouldn't know for sure, though, because you're not able to connect to the hotspot itself or see data transmission rates.
  • An AT&T demo of VR and XR experiences that could be powered by 5G — but the demos aren't running live on a network, they're running from a desktop computer connected to Wi-Fi (technically, a 5G technology).

These are temporary networks with little backhaul and spectrum — they can't offer 5G as advertised.

Why all of the smoke, mirrors and black boxes? Two reasons, both legitimate. The first is the reality of the "networks" that are on site: these are single cell sites that were constructed temporarily using existing infrastructure on Maui. These towers are connected to far less backhaul than the typical cell tower would be, and are operating with a fraction of the spectrum they'd normally have license to use. The other reason is that these 5G components on the infrastructure side just aren't done yet, and the firmware and hardware on the client device side is even further away from being finished.

5G Moto Mod AT&T Netgear 5G hotspot

The only problem with the demo is that expectations were set that could never be achieved.

Add up these issues, and you can see why the carriers are highly reluctant to show off something that's likely to have issues or fail when used and tested outside of the narrow scope of the demos. With limited backhaul and spectrum to use, the 5G speeds we'd see in testing would be nowhere near the 1-2Gbps that will come in the real world networks. But the funny part is, in trying to protect from those potential failures or shortcomings, they're showing off demos that make them — and their networks — look even worse. All we're seeing in these demos is a physical version of a press release — both Verizon and AT&T are showing us towers and devices connected to towers, with examples of use-cases for the future. That's fine, but in no way matches the expectations that were set. The disconnect is simply in the messaging: this is only disappointing because it was billed as something far more than they could deliver in these circumstances.

Don't let a couple bad demos that were destined to fail temper your excitement for actual 5G rollouts.

I completely understand the carriers' reluctance to do a wide-open 5G demo where the press can use a device in any way they want to test the network's capabilities. The only 5G demos we see, after all, are single sites temporarily deployed with potentially inconsistent backhaul and connecting to development devices with unfinished hardware and software. They can never provide a true 5G experience in this situation; right now, they're more limited than a modern LTE device. But at that point, with all of those caveats, you need to stop calling that a consumer 5G demo. Because it isn't.

The future of 5G is bright. We know how 5G technology will work and we know the carriers are going to make it a reality starting in 2019. But right now, it's not finished and it doesn't work properly — so don't let these bad demos discolor or temper your interest in 5G as a technology, because this is not a proper representation of all of the great things 5G will become and enable in the very near future.