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In the 5G race of 2019, consumers were the real losers

Commentary: The carriers were largely in testing mode, and consumers were the guinea pigs.

5g-space

5G wasn't a complete bust, but it didn't live up to the hype either. 

Robert Rodriguez/CNET

It's the beginning of 2019, and the hype for 5G is immense. Verizon talks about all of the different applications at a keynote at CES. A few next-generation networks had already turned on in December 2018, and after years of big promises and anticipation, it looks like the game-changing technology is finally going to show up in a big way. 

Then 2019 happened. 

Those networks that turned on early? Consumers still don't have access to some of them. One initially touted a single robot customer. 

The handful of networks in the US that went live in the middle of the year suffered from extremely limited range. Overseas, coverage was promising, but likewise spotty. The broader range flavor of 5G, which promises to cover more people, launched this month with an incremental increase in speed over 4G networks. 5G smartphones have been pricey, suffered from weak battery life and been limited in the types of 5G bands they could access. 

Game-changing this is not. 

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The shaky launch of 5G this year underscores the fact that the wireless industry is still in testing mode when it comes to the technology, and you're the guinea pig. But the need to be first, which has driven many of these carriers, ultimately hurt consumers by over-promising and under-delivering. Yes, speeds can be 100 times what you could get on 4G, but it's not worth much if it's limited to an intersection. 

"Carriers made it sound like 5G would dominate the world in 2019-2020," said Lopez Research analyst Maribel Lopez. "The reality is that we've seen a few phones and a few cities deployed."

Going into 2020, I hope there's less of a focus on who's first, and more on simply offering a service that gets close to fulfilling the many promises made over the last few years. That also includes devices that are more affordable and can offer more flexibly to hop between carriers and different flavors of 5G. 

There's reason to be hopeful, as the technology matures and further deployments and upgrades continue. 

But after a rough 2019, you'll excuse me if I remain skeptical. 

5GE is a thing. Really

Getting 5G to consumers first meant so much to AT&T that it changed the definition of its 4G network. At the beginning of the year, the company rebranded its LTE Advanced network, which other carriers had built out as well, as 5GE, claiming it was on an evolutionary path to 5G. The 5GE symbol showed up on phones where the 4G symbol used to be. 

AT&T emphasized the 5G bit, causing a lot of confusion and leading many consumers to believe they had 5G. It sparked a lawsuit from Sprint, which was settled

The company later toned down the marketing of 5GE, including making the Evolution bit more pronounced, but the confusion had already set in. AT&T declined to comment directly on the market confusion caused by 5GE, instead referencing the work its done to invest in its network. 

"We continue to push the boundaries of what's possible with existing network technologies, and results throughout 2019 in studies like Ookla and GWS show that AT&T's best nationwide network, accessible on over 20 devices, outperforms our competitors," said an AT&T spokesman. 

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T-Mobile's low-band 5G network arrived. And while the speeds were sometimes impressive, often times they were just slightly better than its 4G network. 

Eli Blumenthal, CNET

In 2018, Verizon also played fast and loose with the definition of 5G in its claim to launch the first home broadband service. In truth, the company used a proprietary technology that was very 5G-like, causing rivals to dispute its achievement. It's since vowed to switch over to the industry standard for its home service, but hasn't expanded it. 

In 2019, Verizon talked up 5G UWB, or ultra wideband, its term for really, really fast 5G. (Here's a full list of 5G marketing terms.) But when the service launched in Chicago, testers needed a map to hunt down coverage. It was a mess, although it eventually got better. The company plans to hit 30 markets by the end of the year, even if the coverage within those cities is spotty. 

"There were always going to be serious logistical challenges to 5G's deployment here," said IDC analyst Jason Leigh, noting that South Korea was successful. "There was going to be an inevitable letdown." 

Verizon, for its part, acknowledges that it's still early days for the deployment, but that consumers, businesses and governments are excited by the prospect of 5G. Applications like the Disney Star Wars experience, powered by 5G, give you an idea of what's possible. 

"They recognize the impact this network will have," said a Verizon spokesman on the reaction the company's received from its customers and other partners, noting that it's still early days in the 5G roll out. 

This month, T-Mobile and AT&T both launched 5G networks using low-band spectrum, which means way better range. The downside, however, are the lackluster speed boosts. T-Mobile says it gives you only a 20 percent boost in speed over 4G, but covers a wide area. AT&T launched a millimeter wave network a year ago, but still limits it to a closed group of business customers. It says its low-band 5G network offers similar speeds to 5GE. 

Ironically, Sprint, which is saddled with a reputation for poor service, has the most robust network in the few cities it operates in. It's using midband spectrum, a sweet spot that gives you a mix of better speed and wider coverage. It's also the type of spectrum that most of the world outside of the US is using. But given its financially strapped situation and the fact that it's waiting for T-Mobile to snap it up, it's hard to seriously consider. 

Globally, we saw similar results our expansive tests. In the UK and Australia, coverage offered big jumps in speeds, but big coverage gaps too. South Korea, however, performed the most consistently. Our overall conclusion: 5G had a long way to go. 

Don't buy a 5G phone

If you were looking at a 5G smartphone this year thinking you were future-proofing yourself, turn around and walk away. 

As mentioned before in numerous CNET stories, buying a 5G phone this year is a bad idea

They're expensive, tend to overheat and suffer from weak battery life. But more importantly, they don't future-proof you for upcoming 5G deployments. 

That's because 5G is a bit more complicated off the bat, utilizing different bands of spectrum. Verizon's 5G UWB uses championed so-called millimeter wave spectrum, which offers tremendous speed and equally tremendously short range. Think a glorified Wi-Fi hotspot with speeds that let you download whole seasons of Game of Thrones in minutes. 

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A more expensive 5G variant of the Galaxy S10? Nah, pass. 

Angela Lang/CNET

As previously mentioned, AT&T and T-Mobile are starting their consumer push with low-band 5G, even if they too have small deployments of millimeter wave networks. Eventually, all of the carriers will start to incorporate low, mid and millimeter wave spectrum when the spectrum becomes available. 

But here's the rub about this year's 5G phones: They're limited in the bands you can tap. So Verizon's Samsung Galaxy S10 5G will get millimeter wave spectrum, but not low band. Or a T-Mobile low-band phone is stuck on that band. 

It's like being stuck in the middle lane of a freeway as faster, freer lanes all around you open up. 

A smoother 2020

As all technologies do, 5G will mature in 2020. Qualcomm has already discussed an integrated processor that includes a 5G modem that will run in more affordable phones. Companies like AT&T and T-Mobile will start building out the different bands of their 5G network. 

Now that 5G networks are live, and the idea of "first" is meaningless, my hope is carriers will just focus on making this work -- for as many people as possible. 

Because despite all my criticism, I do genuinely believe 5G will change the world. I look at how things have changed in the last 10 years since 4G launched, and things are wildly different. The combination of speed and latency from 5G can really enable a lot of new technologies, from remote medicine to self-driving cars

I'm ready for that revolution, even if I have to sit through an early stretch of marketing jargon and unwarranted hype.