5G - a Race to the Bottom

Published: Monday, Oct 19, 2020 Last modified: Thursday, Dec 3, 2020

It’s 2020. People are less mobile and this year mobile phone manufacturers are pushing 5G hard.

5G signals a new round of insane investment needed by carriers/operators.

5G is far more complex. 5G requires more stations. 5G by most estimations at AT LEAST a 2x investment of 4G. Who pays for this?!

You do and you will.

Cost cutting

Operators across the world have long become shells of just trying to save money for these technological shifts and paying governments to licence spectrum. And lets add some salt to the wounds with increasing legislation and compliance demands.

Operators buy off the shelf “managed” software to try reduce costs and risk. There are hardly any developers in any operator. Operators are just investment vehicles.

Poor customer service

Want to do something slightly out of ordinary with an operator? Like get customer service? Or a second line on your account? Prepare to be disappointed.

But see it from their perspective. Any product or “user journey” other than opening a new line with the Operator is going to be too complex for them to support across their large user base.

Want another line on your contract? Operators won’t want to do it! Operators want you to open a new line, and go through all the onboarding procedures as if you were a new customer. This is frustrating for you since you need to go through all the KYC process again!

Multiple SIMs and one line?

No no no! You cannot expect this with operators. You might be used to VOIP and its convenience of ringing any connected phone, but think of the security implications. Criminal gangs would love to log into your account and get your SMSes wouldn’t they? You would love the convenience of line portability and so would criminals.

End result: Operators cannot offer line portability for security / mirror attacks.

How do operators make money again?

Singapore mobile plans

In Singapore no operator wants to go lower than 20SGD per month to support any form of connectivity.

To make extra money, operators appear to:

  1. Try create one off bundles, often combined with hardware to lock you in to a long term contract that’s not in your favour
  2. Break Net neutrality – accept money from Facebook / Wechat etc in order to zero rate their product’s data
  3. Sell network capacity to MVNOs so they treat you as the product

In Singapore there are three Operators: Singtel, Starhub and M1. If you use another vendor, they are buying capacity from one of the three mentioned. In fact, nowadays this trinity of a consortium often share masts and infrastructure to save on costs.

Holding the Crown Jewels

Operators effectively have to manage your identity. They have to securely manage:

  1. Your passport copy
  2. Photos of you
  3. Your utility bills
  4. Your mobile records for law enforcement
  5. Where you are aka your location

This is of course really interesting to governments, criminals and lets not forget… Mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) or Wireless application service providers (WASPs) who usually have access to the same sensitive data!

For example in South Africa there was a case where location data was leaked to criminals to kill a police commander!

Lets not forget most operators need to keep several copies of the data and feed that data to intelligence services. An unenviable situation with the security/privacy risk is untenable.

Conclusion: Operators are between a rock and hard place

The pressures on operators from 5G, to governments and criminals makes me understand how I can expect them to do very little for me in the sense of convenience or innovation.

If I ever want to connect another device, I will need to open a new contract and that will always be painful for the KYC reasons above. Costs will never be lower than a certain threshold, 20SGD at time of writing and it will probably go up in reality.

I expect further consolidation and government involvement. For your own personal freedom, you probably want to look at other ways of connecting to the Internet.

tl;dr 5G is probably the tipping point for mobile operators to suck even harder