Cisco recently released a white paper titled Cisco 5G Vision Series: Laying the Foundation for New Technologies, Use Cases, and Business Models that lays out their vision of how the cellular industry can migrate from 4G to 5G. It’s a highly technical read and provides insight on how 5G might work and when we might see it in use.
As the white paper points out, the specific goals of 5G are still in the process of being developed. Both 4G and 5G are basically a set of detailed standards used to make sure devices can work on any network meeting the standards. Something that very few people realize is that almost none of the supposed 4G networks in this country actually meet the 4G standards. We are just now seeing the deployment around the world of the first technologies – LTE-Advanced and WIMAX 16m – that meet the original 4G standards. It’s been typical for cellular providers to claim to have 4G when they’ve only met some tiny portion of the standard.
And so, long before we see an actual 5G deployment we are first going to see the deployment of LTE-Advanced followed by generations of improvements that are best described as pre-5G (just as most of what we have today is pre-4G). This evolution means that we should expect incremental improvements in the cellular networks, not a big swooping overhaul.
The paper makes a very clear distinction between indoor 5G and outdoor 5G (which is cellular service). Cisco says that already today that 80% of cellphone usage is done indoors, mostly using WiFi. They envision that in places with a lot of people, like stadiums, shopping centers or large business buildings, that there will be a migration from WiFi to millimeter wave spectrum using the 5G standard. This very well could ultimately result in gigabit speeds on devices with the right antennas to receive that signal.
But these very fast indoor speeds are going to be limited to those places where it’s economically feasible to deploy multiple small cells – and places that have good fiber backhaul. That’s going to mean places with lots of demand and the willingness to pay for such deployments. So you might see fast speeds inside wireless in hospitals, but you are not going to see gigabit speeds while waiting for your car to be repaired or while sitting in the dentist waiting room. And most importantly, you are not going to see gigabit speeds using millimeter wave spectrum outside. All of the early news articles talking about having outdoor gigabit cellular speeds were way off base. This misunderstanding is easy to understand since the press releases from cellular companies have been nebulous and misleading.
So what can be expected outdoors on our cell phones? Cisco says that the ultimate goal of 5G is to be able to deliver 50 Mbps speeds everywhere. At the same time, the 5G standards have the goal of being able to handle a lot more connections at a given cell site. That goal will mean better reception at football games, but it also means a lot more connections will be available to connect to smart cars or Internet of Things devices.
But don’t expect much faster cellular speeds for quite some time. Remember that the goal of 4G was to deliver about 15 Mbps speeds everywhere. And yet today, the average LTE connection in the US is at about half of that speed. The relatively slow speeds of today’s LTE are due to a number of different reasons. First, is the fact that most cell sites are still running pre-4G technology. The willingness of the cellular companies to buy sufficient bandwidth backhaul at cell sites is also a big contributor. I’ve seen in the press that both Verizon and AT&T are looking for ways to reduce backhaul costs – that’s thought to be the major motivation for Verizon to buy XO Communications. Another major issue is that existing cell sites are too far apart to deliver fast data speeds, and it will require a massive deployment of small cell sites (and the accompanying fiber backhaul) to fix the spacing problem.
So long before we see 50 Mbps cellular speeds we will migrate through several generations of incremental improvements in the cellular networks. We are just now seeing the deployment of LTE-Advanced which will finally bring 4G speeds. After that, Cisco has identified what looks to be at least three or four steps of improvements that we will see before we achieve actual 5G cellular.
How long might all of this take? The industry is scheduled to finalize the 5G standards by 2020, and perhaps a little sooner. It looks like there will be a faster push to find millimeter wave solutions for indoor 5G, so we might see those technologies coming first. But it has taken us a decade since the large cellular companies announced deployment of 4G cellular until we are finally starting to see networks that meet that standard. I can’t imagine that the 5G migration will go any faster. And even when 5G gets here, it’s going to hit urban areas long before it hits rural areas. One doesn’t have to drive too far into the country today to find places that are still operating at 3G.
Upgrading to 5G in steps will be expensive for the cellular providers and they are not likely to implement changes too quickly. We will likely see a series of incremental improvements, like they have been doing for many years. So it would not be surprising to be at least until 2030 until there is a cellular system in place that fully meets the 5G standard. Of course, long before then the marketing departments of the wireless providers will tell us that 5G is here – and when they do, everybody looking for blazingly fast cellphone speeds are going to be disappointed.