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As I’ve been writing this newsletter over the past year, the thorniest 5G question I keep running into is what it’s for.
As the folks at the University of Oulu point out, we’re stuck in a bit of a chicken and egg situation: New 5G applications can’t really develop yet, because our 5G is mostly “4G on steroids.” Even T-Mobile’s much-vaunted mid-band network doesn’t often reach the gigabit speeds we heard so frequently promised in 2018. The lack of interesting new applications (and a lot of very confusing carrier marketing for mediocre networks) has led consumers to start to sour on 5G.
T-Mobile’s president of technology, Neville Ray, is always someone I listen to when thinking about where networks are going, because he’s literally building them. So when he says “eyewear wearables” are going to be one of the first disruptive 5G product categories, I pay attention. Why wearables? Because augmented reality features are going to demand low latency (so you don’t get dizzy) and high throughput.
But smart glasses are held up by a problem that has nothing to do with 5G, and that 5G can’t help: optics. So far no company can make smart glasses with a comfortable field of view, whether 5G gets better or not. Do the optics problems get solved when the networks become available? These things seem, unfortunately, unable to help each other.
So until a real killer application comes along, 5G is mostly about capacity. That’s not nothing—it’s just boring. Ray pointed out that subscribers on T-Mobile’s Magenta Max plan use 35GB per month as opposed to US LTE subscribers at 12 to 15GB per month (and Canadians are down around 5GB per month). People are doing more of what they did before on their phones—more social, more video, more audio, more posting. There’s opportunity in there, it’s just nothing ontologically new.
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The Fastest Mobile Networks in Canada
I don’t usually do two “main stories” in this newsletter, but I want to talk about the results of our big annual Canada drive test. There is a lot to dig into in this story—around 100 charts and maps—and even if you’re not in Canada, I think it’s really interesting to see how they do things there.
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Canada has three major carriers and several minor ones. Two of them, Bell and Telus, share a radio network everywhere except Manitoba. But they don’t share core networks (the part in the ground), and I can tell you they compete viciously on that (because they kept calling me with updates). That makes for slight variations in performance between the two carriers. The big gap in performance, though, is between Bell/Telus and everyone else, who don’t have Bell/Telus’ combined hoard of spectrum.
This is a big part of why I’m advocating different solutions in Canada than I do in the US. I’ve generally been against big telecom mergers in the US, but Rogers buying Shaw makes sense to me, as long as it’s part of a regulated “grand alliance” deal creating a second spectrum pool managed by Rogers and Videotron that’s truly competitive with the Bell/Telus radio network. (Xplornet, meanwhile, can step up with competitive wireless home internet.) The Canadian government also needs to get some backbone and demand that low-cost virtual carriers get access so they can provide price competition; the government punted on that decision last year.
What Else Happened This Week?
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