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Does the world really need 5G?

The much-ballyhooed 5G wireless technology is so revolutionary, it could transform the U.S. mobile phone industry even before it arrives. But who needs it?

The next-generation tech appears to be one of the major rationales behind the proposed merger between T-Mobile and Sprint, the third- and fourth-most-popular mobile phone networks in the United States. Deploying 5G, which calls for a comparatively dense build-out of antennas in urban areas, will be costly and time-consuming, and it’s not entirely clear why the United States needs four copies of this infrastructure.

But telecom analyst Dave Burstein has raised a bigger question: What if 5G isn’t such a big leap after all? With equipment vendors pushing the capabilities of the current technology (known as 4G LTE) above 1 gigabit per second in peak speeds, 5G can seem more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Burstein isn’t the only doubter. And it’s worth asking whether consumers would be better off with four mobile phone companies innovating the way T-Mobile and Sprint have than three behemoths all following the same playbook — even if one or two of them stuck with 4G LTE.

I’m more optimistic about 5G, whose benefits will include services that can only come into being once higher mobile speeds and lower latency become available. I also like 5G as a potential alternative to cable modems and DSL in the competition-starved market for home broadband service. That’s how 5G will be introduced, after all — as a fixed wireless broadband service in a handful of cities this year.

But how many competitors are enough in mobile phone service, or any other market for that matter? There’s no good answer. As The Times’ editorial board noted in 2006, regulators have gradually made peace with an ever-smaller number. Five major record labels have become three, for example. And it’s easy to see the current Justice Department and Federal Communications Commission allowing four major mobile phone companies to become three as well.

But I’d rather have more innovation on price, features and phones than more — and more duplicative — investment in 5G. What about you?

This article originally ran on


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