Rich Warren: Cellular providers should lead way into 5G

Rich Warren: Cellular providers should lead way into 5G

Cellphones rule! Even those who insist they only own a flip phone remain tethered to the cellular universe. The smartphone arrived barely over a decade ago, and the cellphone itself only became common about a decade before that. Yet here we are in a wireless wonderland, which is about to become either more wonderful or wicked over the next few years.

Cellular providers barely mastered 4G LTE (fourth generation, long-term evolution) technology before promising us 5G. Engineers designed LTE as a series of independently implemented technologies ultimately upgrading everyone from 3G to 4G. Similarly, 5G LTE, although not yet a standard, will provide a similar path from 4G to 5G. Full 5G is an advanced technology raising cellular close to the speed and capacity of fiber-optic internet. Theoretically, 5G delivers enough capacity that data caps will become history, allowing you to endlessly stream HD movies.

Suddenly, to paraphrase George Lucas, "There's a disturbance in the force." Rather than let the cellular providers lead the way into 5G, a leaked memo from the Trump administration proposed the federal government build and control the 5G cellular network, then lease it back to the current cell providers such as AT&T and Verizon.

This column normally steers clear of politics, but it seems absurd that a government ardently for free markets and reduction of government regulation would desire to take over the cell network. Even under Ma Bell, the government allowed a private company to control most of our wired communication system.

The memo claims government control of the cell network would prevent infiltration from China. That sounds like a pretty flimsy excuse. The explanation for a government takeover is that control of the cell system is control of communications in America. I'll trust AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-mobile, as profit hungry as they may be, to keep us safe. For competitive reasons, they'll rush to upgrade to 5G as soon as the hardware becomes available. AT&T and Verizon already plan very limited rollouts later this year.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government leans on cellphone providers concerning the phones they directly offer their customers. As mentioned in our CES coverage, AT&T suddenly dropped its arrangement with Huawei to offer its newest premium phone after government prompting. Subsequently, Verizon also dropped Huawei.

Huawei also markets phones under the name Honor. Huawei ranks as the largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer in the world and second largest cellphone manufacturer after Samsung.

In the often Byzantine structure of Chinese corporations, the ownership of Huawei is vague. The Chinese government invested in the company, and some analysts believe the Chinese government exerts hidden control. The company builds high-quality phones that you can buy on the internet through vendors such as Amazon. Many, if not most, of our smartphones come from China with many marketed by Chinese brands such as OnePlus, ZTE, Xiaomi and, yes, even venerable Motorola, now owned by Lenovo.

On a happier ringtone, while we may love to hate our cell providers, sometimes they surprise us by far exceeding expectations.

I gave my partner an iPhone 7 for Christmas, as she does not feel the need to own the latest and greatest. Since she eschews backup to the iCloud, she needed a way to transfer all of her data and settings from her 5-year-old iPhone to the new one.

We went to the corporate AT&T store on Prospect in Champaign. After a short wait for help, one of its staff not only transferred all the data but spent an extra 15 minutes explaining the operation of the new phone and its differences from the old model, as well as verifying the new phone worked perfectly. All told, he spent 45 minutes with us, and we never felt rushed. He treated us like we were the only reason he came to work that day.

Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. Email him at hifiguy@mchsi.com.

Topics (2):Internet, Technology