The 5G emperor has no clothes so what does that mean for cloud network architects?

5G, or not really 5G? That is the question. At least, that’s the question that cloud network architects should be asking themselves about their 5G service providers’ offerings.

Most so-called 5G services still run over a 4G core network. Consumers buying these services might see a 5G icon next to the bars on their handsets, but actually, their throughput is restricted to the speeds available on the older 4G wireless infrastructure (so much for 5G being 100 times faster than 4G).

Enterprise companies looking to extend their cloud infrastructure over 5G face an even bigger problem than just lackluster speed. In order to run cloud-native applications over 5G, they need advanced features like network slicing, microservices and user plane function (UPF) which are only supported by 5G core networks – not 4G LTE.

Beyond 5G-washing

So, which service providers have built a 5G core (and which are still busy gaslighting consumers into thinking they’re getting fancy-pants 5G service when they’re not)?

In the U.S., T-Mobile is a clear 5G leader and has been running “real” 5G in its core since 2020, according to analyst firm Dell ’Oro Group.

Dish also launched its cloud-based 5G service in the US last year.

In the U.K., BT is another major carrier pursuing a pants-on-fire, not-really-5G marketing strategy. (Conversely, its competitor, Vodafone, launched actual core 5G in both the U.K. and Germany in 2021).  

The good news for cloud network architects looking to enable applications over 5G is that there’s a lot more cloud-native core networks on the way.

Ericsson, which provides a complete 5G core software portmanteau, says they have 40 operator-customers implementing or testing cloud-native standalone systems and network implementations right now. Staffan Henriksson, head of sales, cloud infrastructure, at Ericsson told Silverlinings that the majority of these customers are deploying cloud-native standalone 5G.

Then there’s Rakuten. In Japan, it’s known for deploying a state-of-the-art mobile network, built from the ground up around the cloud. In 2021, it launched Rakuten Symphony, a division of the parent company that works with international carriers to enable them to do the same thing.

“The telecom industry hasn’t changed how it builds networks for 40 years. It just keeps adding capacity, but the fundamentals are the same. The network is underutilized and manually operated. It’s the exact opposite of cloud-native,” said Geoff Hollingworth, chief marketing officer, Rakuten Symphony. He added, “Service providers need to fix that to be competitive. Otherwise, it’s like putting a steam engine up against a Ferrari that is priced like a Kia.”

The home of the 5G whopper

So, does it matter that service providers are playing fast and loose with the definition of 5G in the consumer market? Yeah, I think it does. 

Service providers get away with 5G-washing 4G networks when marketing to consumers because, technically, they are running 5G between the handset and the base station. They just omit the fact that the 5G signal then goes into that pesky slow-mo 4G core.

The 5G emperor has no clothes
(Steve’s new “5G” phone (wink wink))

(And why stop there? Why not stick a 5G chipset in the handset and not connect it to anything? Or, maybe just add a 5G sticker? Hell, why not just scrawl “5G” on the case with a Sharpie?)

But when it comes to building 21st century cloud infrastructure, “5G-ish” isn’t going to cut it — these are the same companies that you will be commissioning core 5G from for your enterprise network.

The whole thing just makes me wonder what else would they fib about?

As an antidote to these marketing shenanigans, on April 5, Silverlinings is launching a department dedicated to getting to the bottom of cloud-native 5G (a.k.a. core 5G, a.k.a.a. standalone 5G).

Silverlinings’ cloud-native 5G site will be edited by Dan “Jonesy” Jones, a 30-year veteran of the wireless industry. Dan’s remit is to focus on the how, when, where and who of cloud-native 5G.

Send him tips here. He's standing by.