Most people know it's not a party until the chips and the dip are on the table.
In the case of 5G wireless, the next global bump up in speed for smartphones, the chips are in the cabinet, the dip is still in the fridge, but the telecom industry is trying to convince you the party is started.
Don't believe it. It's going to take a long time, a very long time, for 5G wireless to be sufficiently widespread that the average consumer in the U.S. can take advantage of it.
That fact has to be kept in mind when assessing the prospects for companies whose fortunes are tied to 5G, including Verizon Communications (VZ) and AT&T (T) , Qualcomm (QCOM) , Apple (AAPL) , Corning (GLW) , and many others.
A host of challenges face the build-out of 5G: Tons of fiber needs to be deployed; cell towers need to be put up in greater number than in past, which requires an exhausting process of getting local permits from municipalities across the land; and new auctions of wireless spectrum still need to take place in the U.S. in order for Verizon and other carriers to have all the spectrum they need to ultimately serve all their markets.
Data from Ciena (CIEN) , research firm The Dell'Oro Group, and Morgan Stanley indicate that come 2023, the vast majority of worldwide wireless subscribers will still be on 4G and older wireless network forms, with just a tiny sliver migrated to 5G.
"It is still early days," says Neil Mawston of market research firm Strategy Analytics, regarding sales of 5G phones. Mawston in an email to TheStreet predicted that just 1% of total smartphones shipping this year will be 5G models, with sales hampered by "high prices and complex componentry," among other factors. That amount may rise to 4% in 2020, when Apple is expected to ship its first 5G phone.
Despite those challenges, the hype machine at Verizon and other companies is in high gear. Verizon last Thursday announced a special deal if one buys the Samsung Galaxy S10 smartphone with 5G modem capabilities, Verizon's first 5G-capable smartphone. The company will give people hundreds to trade in phones, and will wave the $10 additional fee it would normally charge to add 5G service to an existing plan.
Verizon wants to sell phones. But there is a serious lack of 5G actually deployed around the nation. Verizon has so far deployed 5G in two cities in the U.S., Minneapolis and Chicago. In neither case is 5G blanketing the city. Verizon told TheStreet, in response to an email inquiry, that 5G is available in parts of Chicago such as the "West Loop" and around landmarks such as the Art Institute. In Minneapolis, 5G similarly covers select areas, such as U.S. Banc Stadium in downtown.
Speaking a week ago at an investment conference hosted by research firm Moffett Nathanson, Verizon's head of network strategy and planning, Adam Koeppe, downplayed negative press reports about the roll-out, saying that "we've had a mix of really good experiences and some that have had challenges" in Chicago and Minneapolis.
To be sure, limited availability is always the case with new technology being rolled out. What is not mentioned by Verizon and others publicly is that the chatter behind the scenes suggests a very, very long process for this deployment.
In New York last week, Xilinx (XLNX) , a company that sells chips for wireless base stations, told Wall Street analysts at a closed-door meeting that the roll-out of 5G will take longer than the prior standard, 4G, did, on a worldwide basis. While "each geography has different requirements," in general, 5G requires half again as many wireless base stations as did 4G, said Xilinx vice president Liam Madden.
Some analysts at the meeting seemed taken aback about the slow timeframe indicated by Madden. When pressed, Madden noted sales of Xilinx's chips won't really start to show up for Xilinx in its revenue until next year.
If a big supplier of chips is telling you that 5G needs a lot more base stations, but that sales of chips for the base stations haven't even taken off yet, you know that there's a whole lot more building to do before carriers have adequate coverage.
Another perspective comes from Clearfield (CLFD) , a Minneapolis-based developer of products that manage fiber-optic cabling for the so-called last mile, the fiber that runs from a telephone network to a home or business. Clearfield is looking forward to competing with Corning and CommScope Holdings (COMM) , among others, for the business of Verizon and AT&T and others.
In a recent interview, Clearfield CEO Cheri Beranek said 5G will require 25 times more fiber cabling than was the case in 4G. In addition, getting municipalities to grant permits to put up base stations is extra complicated because "you can't plan it," as Beranek notes. Communities are "not good at setting expectations" for when permits will be available.
"There have been some really aggressive timelines thrown out there," says Beranek of predictions for when 5G will be broadly available in the U.S. At a recent telecom conference, notes Beranek, a consultant to AT&T was asked how long it might take and said "two, three, at most five years." Most people in the room rolled their eyes at this, recalls Beranek, replying, "In your dreams, man!"
And in all this back-room chatter, people repeat the refrain that Verizon and AT&T have indicated they are not planning a big boost in capital expenditures any time soon, signaling that they're content to take a long time to build capacity for 5G.
What could speed things up? Sprint S and T-Mobile US TMUS got the endorsement of FCC Commissioner Ajit Paion Monday for their merger. That endorsement comes with a condition that the two companies agree to build a 5G network covering 99% of the U.S. population within six years. Conceivably, that might motivate AT&T and Verizon to respond by accelerating their own timelines.
And then there's China, whose three main carriers haven't even begun deployment. The planned economy in that country could step up the speed of deployment, as a national priority.
A lot of ifs and maybes. In the meantime, plan for a long, long race to the beginning of the road. The effect on stocks may be good for some technology suppliers. Xilinx and Clearfield could both begin to see meaningful 5G revenue next year. And Qualcomm, which has to supply all the 5G chips for the world's phones, has said its current fiscal outlook doesn't factor in 5G. That means any ramp of 5G phones in 2020 could boost the company's outlook.
As in any giant fête, the ones actually bringing the chips and the dip will be the first ones applauded by the rest of us.
Tiernan Ray neither trades nor owns shares of any companies mentioned in this article.