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5G is rolling out slowly in the U.S.—here’s why

The term “fast” and “5G” are often synonymous, but that has not been the case for many wireless customers in the United States, The Wall Street Journal reports. The major U.S. wireless carriers claim to have nationwide 5G service, but so far it doesn’t appear to be much different than 4G LTE service, according to industry analysts. Meanwhile, most Americans might not experience wireless services that are faster than what’s currently available until later this year at the earliest, research firm Evercore ISI’s predicts.

“Overall, you’re looking at some time in the end of 2021 to end of 2023 to get two-thirds of the country’s population covered with a 5G service that’s notably better than what is currently out there on 4G,” Evercore analyst James Ratcliffe told The Wall Street Journal.

That means it could be 30 months between when the first 5G-enabled cell phones hit the market and when the first carrier will bring faster 5G to two-thirds of the country. The gap between 4G’s introduction and the first 4G-enabled phone in 2010 was only 18 months.

Why the 5G rollout has been slow in the U.S.

Several factors have caused 5G’s slow rollout, according to industry analysts, academics and former executives. Network infrastructure is one of those issues. There’s currently a short supply of space in the airwaves where the balance between fast transmission speeds and long signal ranges lies. Meanwhile, 5G rollouts come with new network equipment deployments, which can be a laborious process. Since a lot of the new equipment isn’t manufactured in the U.S., it can take longer for purchases to finalized.

The lack of superior apps that would trigger 5G demand and adoption is another reason the next generation of wireless hasn’t been deployed as quickly as people would like, according to industry observers. Mobile video was one of 4G’s biggest draws, but a similar attractive concept is lacking for 5G so far. Meanwhile, telecom companies are putting out billions of dollars in capital expenditures for 5G, but they are not accelerating build-out efforts until future 5G-related revenues are a little clearer, according to Dell Technologies CTO John Roese.

“They got burned once before,” Roese told The Wall Street Journal, regarding telecom carriers’ disappointing returns on their investments in 4G networks, which he said primarily benefited technology companies that offered apps and other services over those networks. “So they’re very cautious about it.”

Not enough midband spectrum to go around?

Wireless carriers Verizon and T-Mobile have said their 5G networks currently cover more than 200 million people. That figure is enough to qualify as a nationwide service, The Wall Street Journal reports. The problem is the carriers’ coverage depends partly on low-band spectrum, which slows it down. Carriers have shifted their focus to midband spectrum to remedy this, but now face a different problem—they aren’t the only ones interested in it. United States government agencies and other organizations are using the spectrum for functions like military communications and weather services. Just a small piece has been reserved for telecom use.

The limited supply is perhaps why the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) C-band auction garnered $81 billion in bids for midband spectrum licenses. The spectrum is so sought after because it presents the best of both worlds for deploying 5G service—it’s faster than low-band, and while it’s not as fast as millimeter wave 5G midband it requires a lot less cell tower density to be effective, according to Dell’Oro Group analyst Stefan Pongratz.

Some assembly required

Many wireless customers have yet to see a difference between 4G LTE and 5G from a speed perspective, but the networks are different. 5G networks required new technology and equipment, which is also extending the deployment process. Installing new equipment for 5G can include several steps from finding a site, getting a permit and doing roadwork to deploy the necessary cables to transmit data to and from cell towers, according to Ratcliffe.

Unfortunately, a lot of the physical work needed to get cellular networks “5G ready” won’t truly get going until next year, according to Edward Gazzola, chief executive of the structural engineering firm Bennet & Pless. The COVID-19 pandemic and other technical issues extended the delay. Equipment availability is also a problem—there aren’t as many technology providers offering wireless network equipment as there was in 2010 during 4G’s debut. There were almost a dozen companies then, compared to five main providers today—Nokia, Ericsson, Samsung, ZTE and Huawei.

“Two are in China. One is in Finland, one is in Sweden and one is in Korea,” Roese told The Wall Street Journal. He also noted that there are more regulations to deal with when trying to buy telecom equipment overseas.

Fortunately, there are new companies joining the market after the U.S. government pushed to stop Huawei from selling its materials in the U.S. due to national security concerns. Other nations followed the U.S. government’s lead. The five previously mentioned companies still have a stronghold on the equipment market, however. Ericsson’s new massive MIMO 5G equipment makes delivering 5G on existing towers easier, but its transmitters still require computer chips, and semiconductor industry has recently been experiencing supply shortages, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Joe Dyton can be reached at

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