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The fuss over 5G, explained

Almost no one in America can use the faster wireless network yet, but it’s already a political lightning rod.

A person walking past a sign reading “Huawei.”
Chinese telecom equipment company Huawei is at the center of controversy surrounding development of the fifth-generation wireless network in the US.
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
Rani Molla is a senior correspondent at Vox and has been focusing her reporting on the future of work. She has covered business and technology for more than a decade — often in charts — including at Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal.

5G is nowhere and yet it’s everywhere.

The fifth-generation cellular network that promises exponentially faster wireless speeds is the focus of a lot of press, political maneuvering, and public interest. But pretty much no one in the US can actually use the budding wireless network yet.

It’s only commercially available from one carrier, Verizon, in two cities, Chicago and Minneapolis, according to a new map from the internet speed test company Ookla. And only a handful of available phones can even access 5G in these two cities.

Nineteen other US cities also have 5G but currently only select customers can beta-test the technology, according to Ookla, which is combining data from public announcements, verified sources, and its own research to track the rollout of 5G in the US. Ookla has also begun to track places where 5G hardware is installed but not in use: So far, it’s found 62 unique locations globally — but none in the US.

It will ultimately take years until 5G is widely adopted in the US. So why is it such a big deal now?

Briefly: It’s part of a mostly made-up race for internet dominance among nations as well as competing mobile providers. It’s billed as a cure-all for rural broadband and crumbling national infrastructure. It’s considered the backbone of our autonomous future and, by extension, insurance of our future technology supremacy. It’s also at the center of a dispute between the US and China over espionage and trade.

Oh, and it was recently featured in a Daily Show segment.

Here’s a more thorough explanation:

It’s actually fast

Each wireless upgrade has brought faster speeds as well as new ways to use those speeds. The move to 4G from 3G, for example, allowed people to watch high-definition video on their phones and made possible numerous adjacent technologies and inventions like Snapchat, FaceTime, and even Uber.

“From an industry and consumer perspective, people are just ready for that next wave of innovation,” Adriane Blum, director of communications at Ookla, told Recode. “People will find ways to use new levels of connectivity whether or not we can imagine it now. If the bandwidth is available, industry and consumers will find ways to maximize it.”

5G, which is much faster and has lower latency than 4G, will allow people to download entire movies to their phones in seconds rather than minutes. Such speeds could enable the expansion of everything from self-driving cars to telemedicine, as well as stuff we haven’t thought of yet.

For people who spend an increasing amount of their time online, fast mobile internet is a very good thing. For an economy that increasingly relies on technology companies to increase its wealth, slow mobile speeds are a nonstarter.

Rural broadband sucks and 5G is supposed to help

Broadband connectivity in rural America is abysmal, with people having to travel long distances from home just to get service. “While rural communities are home to just 15 percent of the nation’s total population, they accounted for 57 percent of the nation’s residents in neighborhoods where broadband has yet to be deployed,” a 2017 Brookings report stated.

The issue is that it’s expensive for telecom companies to bring wired broadband to remote and minimally populated areas in the US, so those regions have been severely underserved.

Many have pointed to 5G mobile internet as a way to overcome the problem, but it’s not a silver bullet. The 5G in rural areas won’t have as much capacity as in cities, and people will run up against expensive and limited data plans compared with wired broadband.

Rather, 5G is one of many partial solutions to fixing rural broadband connectivity, including more wireline infrastructure spending, using the spaces between television channels in what’s referred to as “super wifi” and increased satellite coverage.

However, US political strife with China is dampening hopes for having rural 5G anytime soon.

Chinese trade war and surveillance

It’s tough to draw the line between the administration’s ongoing trade war with China and its more recent battle over Chinese surveillance, but both are threatening a swift rollout of 5G and raising its profile in headlines.

Earlier this month, President Trump banned US tech companies from using telecom equipment that could be a threat to national security — i.e., Huawei, a company that sells 5G telecom equipment. The concern about Huawei is that the Chinese government could intercept information traveling over its networks and then use it for sabotage and espionage. The same day Trump announced his ban, the Commerce Department placed the company on a trade blacklist.

This has an impact on 5G rollout because Huawei makes a lot of relatively affordable networking infrastructure that’s needed to build out 5G in the first place. Huawei is also further along in the development of this tech than other companies and already has plenty of infrastructure in place around the world, both in terms of preexisting 4G networks and in groundwork for 5G.

The trade war with China has already made expanding 5G in the US more expensive, and rules against Huawei threaten to slow 5G’s growth even more.

The Huawei ban seemingly runs counter to Trump’s declaration earlier this year that “America must win the race to 5G” to ensure “national competitiveness” and to “ improve Americans’ lives,” though the president did say in the same speech he’d loosen regulations and free up more 5G spectrum to help get the ball rolling.

These promises are politically important since the US has some of the slowest and most expensive internet connectivity among its peers. In April, the US ranked No. 33 in mobile download speeds globally and ninth in fixed broadband speeds, according to Ookla. Note that as far as 5G goes, Switzerland has 225 unique places where telecoms have built out 5G that people can actually use, compared with 19 in the US. Switzerland is the size of a small US state.

In this day and age, faster internet does mean more opportunity for technological development and, by extension, a better economy.

Still, there are legitimate fears about surveillance and security threats from China and Huawei. US companies and federal agencies have long expressed apprehension about Huawei’s potential to be used as a spy for the Chinese government — something the Trump administration has accused it of and which Huawei denies.

As Recode’s Emily Stewart reported earlier this month,

Huawei is the “emblem” of a variety of fears about China and its technological prowess packed into a single company, Scott Kennedy, deputy director of the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me last year. And a lot of concerns about it aren’t necessarily tied to what it has done, but instead what it might do.

Real or not, this controversy will likely delay 5G.

Marketing, marketing, marketing

In many ways, 5G is a tool in a marketing campaign in which mobile providers are “racing” each other to create an inflated sense of urgency around their products.

Whoever has the fastest service — or at least successfully advertises that they do — will have a leg up among customers. It’s a matter of optics. “Obviously there’s a lot of pride in being able to role out the network officially to their customer base,” Ookla’s Blum told Recode.

The Verge’s Dieter Bohn offered a cynical though credible take: Phone sales are crappy, so the smartphone industry is “looking for ways to goad consumers into another wave of expensive upgrades.” Indeed, you’ll need a new phone to actually be able to use 5G.

Let us not forget AT&T’s marketing debacle, in which the company began displaying “5G E” branding on customers’ phones. Really, 5G E was just 4G with some upgrades, but it was enough to get people interested and testing their phone speeds at higher rates than those without the messaging.

When real 5G roles out on US consumers’ phones, expect a whole new round of interest in the technology.

Recode and Vox have joined forces to uncover and explain how our digital world is changing — and changing us. Subscribe to Recode podcasts to hear Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka lead the tough conversations the technology industry needs today.