Verizon became the first major ISP to launch 5G home internet service yesterday. It’s a major step on the road to making 5G a reality, but if you’ve ever in your life interacted with an internet provider, you’re probably at least a little bit skeptical: is this really 5G?
The answer is sort of. In a phone call yesterday, Verizon’s chief technology architect, Ed Chan, said that the newly launched home 5G service uses a number of technologies that have been deemed a part of 5G. Most important among those is the use of millimeter wave, the radio waves that will be the backbone of 5G connections. Millimeter wave connections work over a much shorter distance, but they’re far faster, enabling Verizon to deliver gigabit speeds wirelessly.
But there are other important factors to 5G, like whether all 5G devices work together and speak the same language. And with Verizon’s implementation, they don’t. Verizon is using a communications standard largely of its own making, called 5G TF, whereas the industry at large is coalescing on something called 5G NR. Even Verizon plans to switch over to 5G NR eventually. But it means that this initial 5G deployment is being done without the widely accepted 5G standard.
T-Mobile CEO John Legere immediately came out with criticism of his competitor, putting an asterisk beside his references to Verizon’s 5G service. “It doesn’t use global industry standards or cover whole blocks and will never scale… but hey, it is first, right?!” he wrote on Twitter.
I cannot begin to explain how important 5G is going to be for this country, so I have to say congrats to Verizon on delivering its 5G* Home Service today. It doesn’t use global industry standards or cover whole blocks and will never scale… but hey, it is first, right?! ♂️— John Legere (@JohnLegere) October 1, 2018
Legere isn’t wrong about the system not scaling, either, in that Verizon plans to physically replace all of its 5G TF hardware with 5G NR hardware in the future — not exactly the most efficient way to deploy internet service. Verizon says it won’t charge customers as it does this, but it didn’t provide a timeline for when it’ll happen. (“Once [NR hardware] meets our strict specifications for our customers,” Verizon clarified in an email.)
Chan says Verizon chose to deploy 5G this way because the NR standard wasn’t moving along fast enough. “We saw clearly the tech was already available to take advantage of and implement,” he says, so TF was created to let Verizon and other networks begin testing out 5G-style service.
By Chan’s account, this also got the rest of the industry to speed up the NR standard. “The standards body themselves ... accelerated by a good year and a half,” he says.
There’s some truth to that: the 5G NR standard was accelerated. And one analyst, Michael Thelander of Signals Research Group, who was closely following the process, did indicate that a factor in speeding up the process was the threat of standards fragmentation if Verizon moved too far ahead with its own version of 5G.
But ultimately, that same analyst criticized Verizon’s standard for its departures from 5G NR. “It’s great to be trialing, even if you define your own spec, just to kind of get out there and play around with things. That’s great and wonderful and hats off to them,” Thelander told FierceWireless last year. “But when you oversell it and call it 5G and talk about commercial services … it’s not 5G.”
Verizon maintains that what it launched is 5G. “The TF standard provided the foundation for what became the NR standard globally. This is true 5G!” Howie Waterman, Verizon’s media relations lead for networks and technology, wrote in an email to The Verge. “As to the tweet you shared with John [Legere], to me, that’s the type of response from a competitor that’s not first to market.”
In practice, Verizon’s claim may well be right. It’s using new technologies and faster radio waves to deliver faster internet service, which is ultimately the big picture description of what 5G is.
But Legere is also right that what Verizon launched is not the one true “5G” everyone is building toward. It’s not compatible with the industry at large, it’s not even upgradable, and it’s going to need to be replaced. Even the 5G phones that eventually launch on Verizon’s network — or the 5G “mod” that Verizon has already announced — are not expected to be compatible with the home 5G service that Verizon launched on Monday.
As long as Verizon follows its plan of eventually switching over to 5G NR, the common standard, none of this should be a huge problem. And confusion ought to be limited since consumers aren’t actually meant to use the 5G TF service directly; instead, it’s supposed to get picked up by a compatible router and beamed out via Wi-Fi.
Despite its boasting, Verizon isn’t even the first internet provider to launch a non-standard 5G home internet service. C-Spire, a regional provider that operates in and around Mississippi, also launched a 5G service earlier this year. It operates similarly to 5G, delivering wired service to regional antennas that then beam internet to homes using high-frequency radio waves, but it transmits using a proprietary standard that’s closer to Wi-Fi and delivers internet at entirely unremarkable speeds.
So what has Verizon really accomplished with this launch? It’s getting faster internet speeds to a select few areas, it’s somewhat speeding up the broader deployment of 5G, and it’s starting to get the message out to consumers. Mostly, it’s just getting that all-important badge: first major ISP to 5G. But, just like Legere said, it’s with a bit of an asterisk.