5G, or any excuse will do

5G is the latest rage-o-rama of the telecom buzzword industry. It is providing the carriers with yet another excuse to fight network interconnection from smaller users. In this sense 5G is a two-fold layer of BS.

What do I mean by double BS? Because 5G technology is not going to be anything different from 4G, except for shorter ranges -because of higher frequencies – and in consequence, the need for repeater stations at closer intervals.

I will refer you to Geoff Huston, chief scientist for APNIC, the Asia-Pacific issuer of IP addresses.

“5G looks much the same as 4G, and the fundamental difference is the upward shift in radio frequencies for 5G. Initial 5G deployments use 3.8Ghz carriers, but the intention is to head into the millimeter-wave band of 24Ghz to 84Ghz. This is a mixed blessing in that higher carrier frequencies can assign larger frequency blocks and therefore increase carrying capacity of the radio network, but at the same time, the higher frequencies use shorter wavelengths, and these millimeter-sized shorter wavelengths behave more like light than radio. At higher frequencies, the radio signal is readily obstructed by buildings, walls, trees and other larger objects, and to compensate for this, any service deployment requires a significantly higher population of base stations to achieve the same coverage. Beyond the hype, it’s not clear if there is a sound sustainable economic model of millimeter-wave band 5G services.”

–        http://www.circleid.com/posts/20200525-emerging-communications-technologies/

The function of 5G is what in movies they call the MacGuffin, the thing about which the plot can turn. Wikipedia defines it thus:

“In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin) is an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself.”

 The Maltese Falcon is a classic instance of a MacGuffin. The statue of the falcon had no real value except as the object that the villain coveted, and its possession drove the plot.

Likewise, the function of 5G is not to provide a largely non-existent technological advance. Its real function in 2020 is to be the fairy dust thrown in the eyes of the regulator. So 5G is nonsense in two ways: because it is a non-existent or very minor technological advance held out as a great one, and more importantly, because it acts to deceive the regulator and the politicians to achieve a political outcome.  In that regard it joins a long list of telecom industry MacGuffins.

One argument made in the recent wireless proceeding (https://crtc.gc.ca/eng/archive/2019/2019-57.htm) was the MVNOs should be prevented in Canada, or introduced under conditions sure to lead to failure, because the large carriers will need all the capital they can get their hands on to be able to invest in 5G technology.

This was not the only false argument made. It took its place beside “facilities-based” competition as another shibboleth. But that is a topic for another day.

My point about 5G is that it operates in the same way as other boogey-men throughout the history of regulation. Let us count the ways.

When the topic of long-distance competition was first broached in Canada, the false argument then was that consumer prices would rise because revenues from monopoly long distance calling provided cross-subsidies into local calling. The impression created was that people paid something like $25 a month for phone service and after competition was introduced they would pay about $30/month, when in 1980 dollars they were already paying about $55-$65 a month. The argument ignored the fact that consumers were already paying large amounts for repair and installation and digital services, (a fact carefully concealed from public exposure) and that people paid a whole bill, not a basket of services from which they could pick and choose. Never mind. The function of the cross-subsidy argument was to keep people’s eyes focused on the regulatory construct of “local” and “long-distance” calling, and the theory that the “fundamental building block” of telephony was local calling. A MacGuffin.


The second McGuffin that comes readily to mind was the usage-based billing (UBB) incident. That occurred around 2009. The argument went like this. Usage based billing had to be introduced to prevent heavy users from absorbing disproportionate amounts of the network’s capacity. In other words, the companies’ bit counters would have to keep accurate records of how much bandwidth you absorbed so as to prevent the abuse of the system by some at the expense of the many, like young males playing computer games. The argument seems plausible until you recall the effects of Moore’s law, which drives the price of a delivered megabyte downwards at a geometric rate, that the fixed costs of supplying bandwidth are large and the incremental costs for passing electrons or photons through it are practically nil, and that consumers pay for the Internet in rough bands anyway. So metering usage in a precise way was a revenue grab. It took a spasm of popular revolt to get the CRTC to rescind its decision.

Almost certainly other MacGuffins have been employed in the telecom regulatory world. Their function is to confuse the regulator into finding a moral basis for limiting competition to the large carriers. The less the MacGuffin is critically examined the better. If it can be tossed into the public discourse casually, as if someone using the phrase actually knew something, then it has served its purpose.

Given the high intelligence of the advocates for the incumbents, and the laser-like focus of telecom management on shareholders returns, it is normal for them to try to confuse the regulator and the staff with whatever MacGuffins will serve their purpose.

Be not deceived. That ought to be the first rule of regulation. The regulated industry has the means, motive and opportunity to employ false impressions, false moral narratives, and technobabble to sustain shareholder value, thwart competition, and maintain power over what they believe are ‘their’ networks.

What is disappointing is the propensity of the regulator, who is appointed for a short term and who must make a living after they depart, to be so often taken in by these thought-bubbles like 5G, or should I say “5G”. That, too, is a subject for another day.

[If anyone would like to contribute their favourite regulatory MacGuffin, please get in touch.]

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