5G Challenges: Why It Isn't Rolling Out Faster

A lot has to be done before 5G is available everywhere

The Wireless Connection
The Wireless Connection

If 5G is supposed to be so much better than 4G, why is it taking so long to come out? Shouldn’t big companies like Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile offer 5G services already?

5G is slowly making its way into US cities and other locations around the world, but you’d think it'd be available near you soon if it’s promising such fast speeds and new and exciting uses to improve our everyday lives.

While 5G will certainly reach most major cities around the globe eventually, as well as most smaller communities in between, it won't happen all at once due to a number of challenges.

A few reasons why you don’t yet have 5G has to do with everything from the time it takes to implement the hardware for this next-gen wireless network, to the need for regulatory approvals, the lack of coverage area by 5G cells, and network construction costs.

Let's look at all of these in more detail:

5G Networks Are Limited in Range

Illustration of 5G's limited coverage area of less than one square mile

If a 5G network could reach around the globe instantly, it wouldn’t take long for you to have access to one through a 5G phone or hotspot. However, due to the type of signal a 5G cell tower transmits, its reach is severely limited to devices in close proximity.

Many 5G networks are operating on high radio frequencies called millimeter waves, which have the benefit of being able to carry lots of data (e.g., for faster HD movie streaming) but are limited in range (often to less than one square mile). Data transferred through these types of 5G networks is more easily blocked by common objects like trees and buildings.

Because of 5G’s limited scope, fewer users can access 5G from a single cell tower. This means that many small antennae have to be erected to serve more customers, and if not, only a small group of very local devices can get on the network.

However, deploying hundreds of thousands of small cells across the nation isn’t a quick task, and providers are running into other related issues like local community regulations.

Some Cities Aren’t On Board

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5G can’t be used to its fullest potential without wide deployment of 5G hardware and related equipment: antennas, towers, wiring, etc. Unfortunately, some city regulators either haven't been ambitious enough to work with telecom providers to install 5G equipment or their procedures in approving a rollout are proving to be roadblocks.

Municipality regulations might be one of the biggest barriers to a speedy 5G rollout. Some examples include zoning policies, lengthy permitting processes, unreasonable fees, and even aesthetic concerns due to 5G hardware being installed on street lamps and utility poles.

What’s more is that some people are concerned about how safe 5G radio waves are, given that it’s a new type of network that operates at different radio frequencies than older networks like 4G and 3G.

Without proper acceptance from relevant jurisdictions, rolling out 5G in a timely manner is difficult. In fact, some 5G networks spring up seemingly randomly, with smaller communities and even bigger cities without access to 5G towers until the companies installing them have proper approval.

Testing Is Crucial

Illustration of a city's wireless network
Dong Wenjie / Moment / Getty Images 

Like all developing technologies, rigorous testing must be completed before an actual 5G rollout can take place. A company releasing a new phone, for example, won’t provide it for customers until they’re confident that it will work as advertised and provide the best experience for the buyer—the same is true for 5G networks.

Most major mobile phone operators around the world have been testing 5G for a while now. Some are performing indoor 5G tests and others outdoor ones; some companies are testing 5G in moving vehicles and others via fixed wireless access points.

Regardless of what’s being tested in relation to 5G, or when the company plans to release a commercial product, thorough testing has to take place, and it isn’t a quick process.

Spectrum Needs to Be Purchased

Illustration of radio waves

The portions of the radio spectrum that 5G networks operate on aren't just freely available; they have to be licensed to network operators from regulators such as the FCC in the United States.

However, before a telecom provider can pay for a section of the spectrum, international authorities have to agree on which parts of the spectrum can be used for mobile communications.

These steps might sound simple but they’re actually tedious and can take many years to complete. That's not even including hiccups along the way, such as the idea that 5G will corrupt weather forecasts.

...even after reallocating a particular spectrum band for mobile, there is the work of migrating incumbent spectrum users, such as broadcasters or defence programmes, out of the band in a practical, managed way.

5G Phones Aren’t Yet Mainstream

Illustration of a smartphone attached to a link in a chain
Tang Yau Hoong / Ikon Images / Getty Images

Another issue with 5G that’s halting its full deployment and use is that your phone carrier either hasn't yet released a 5G-compatible device or consumers don't feel the need to buy them yet since they're unusable where they live or travel.

This could be considered a catch-22 since phones don’t need to be released until 5G networks are available, but regardless, the two have to be in sync with each other to make 5G useful.

It’s Expensive to Roll Out 5G

Illustration showing the differences between a wealthy man and poor man piggy bank
Marcus Butt / Ikon Images / Getty Images

Another factor that’s delaying a wider rollout of 5G is that deployment of a brand new mobile network isn't cheap. There’s a lot that goes into starting up a 5G network, some of which have been discussed above.

In fact, telecom companies are expected to invest as much as $275 billion into 5G infrastructure before 2025.

A mobile network operator has to pay for all of the following, and more, during a 5G rollout before it can even reach customers:

  • Spectrum licensing
  • The physical hardware used in the 5G deployment
  • Hiring technicians to install the necessary hardware
  • Testing and retesting of the network
  • Deployment fees demanded by regulators

For an idea of how pricey spectrum acquisitions alone can be, consider that T-Mobile purchased nearly $8 billion worth of low-band spectrum, and Telstra invested over $380 million in a 3.6 GHz spectrum auction.