US, South Korean operators still arguing over world’s first 5G service, but in truth it doesn’t really matter

5G is up and running, albeit on a very limited scale.

Friday was the promised launch date for 5G mobile services from Verizon in the US and South Korea’s three main mobile operators, but all flipped the switch early, desperate to be able to claim a world first.

That is to be expected in this industry. We have seen it before with previous generations of mobile technology. But the fact is, there is precious little advantage to being first to market with 5G – or indeed any other ‘G’ – other than a fleeting period of triumphal crowing.

We’re being conditioned to believe that being first is really important. In his pro-merger blog post warning of the danger of letting China get ahead in 5G (more here), Sprint CTO John Saw talked up the importance of leading the way in the next generation of mobile technology.

"There’s a lot of attention on the global race to 5G, and for good reason…The country that leads in 5G will be a global hub for innovation and investment, benefiting from a massive wave of growth in new technologies and services across all industries," Saw wrote.

That may well be the case, but when it comes to who pushed the button first, well, it just doesn’t matter. I could spend precious time working out whether Verizon beat the Koreans to the punch or not, but why would I? It’s not important. And chances are most of us won’t remember anyway. SK Telecom, Verizon et al will doubtless end up being described in news reports as "one of the first in the world to launch 5G services," regardless of whichever went live first.

What matters is the resulting quality of service that will only be evident once coverage areas have grown and a greater choice of devices hits the shelves. At launch, Verizon’s service was available over a limited area of Chicago and Minneapolis, which anecdotal evidence suggests is like connecting to a needle in a haystack…albeit a very sharp needle, while SK Telecom initially provided a 5G service to half a dozen celebrities.

If customers are to pay a premium – Verizon is charging an extra $10 – for 5G, they need to be getting reliable, broad coverage networks and compelling, life-enhancing services. Being able to access lightning-fast mobile connectivity in four square feet of downtown Metropolis will not garner a positive reaction from consumers for long. You won’t see many reviews that read: "The coverage area’s tiny, but hey, my operator was first to market so that’s OK."

That’s not to say the early movers won’t go on to roll out strong services across wide areas. Quite the opposite, actually; they probably will. The point is, it really doesn’t matter who launched first. What matters is where we go from here.

Friday Review: 5 April 2019