The industry is full of hype right now about the impending roll-out of 5G cellular. This is largely driven by the equipment vendors who want to stir up excitement among their stockholders. But not everybody in the industry thinks that there will be a big rush to implement 5G. For example, a group called RAN Research issued a report last year that predicted a slow 5G implementation. They think that 4G will be the dominant wireless technology until at least 2030 and maybe longer.
They cite a number of reasons for this belief. First, 4G isn’t even fully developed yet and the standards and implementation coalition 3GPP plans to continue to develop 4G until at least 2020. There are almost no 4G deployments in the US that fully meet the 4G standards, and RAN Research expects the wireless carriers to continue to make incremental upgrades, as they have always done, to improve cellular along the 4G path.
They also point out that 5G is not intended as a forklift upgrade to 4G, but is instead intended to coexist alongside. This is going to allow a comfortable path for the carriers to implement 5G first in those places that most need it, but not rush to upgrade places that don’t. This doesn’t mean that the cellular carriers won’t be claiming 5G deployments sometime in the next few years, much in the way that they started using the name 4G LTE for minor improvements in 3G wireless. It took almost five years after the first marketing rollout of 4G to get to what is now considered 3.5G. We are just now finally seeing 4G that comes close to meeting the full standard.
But the main hurdle that RAN Research sees with a rapid 5G implementation is the cost. Any wireless technology requires a widespread and rapid deployment in order to achieve economy of scale savings. They predict that the cost of producing 5G-capable handsets is going to be a huge impediment to implementation. Very few people are going to be willing to pay a lot more for a 5G handset unless they can see an immediate benefit. And they think that is going to be the big industry hurdle to overcome.
Implementing 5G is going to require a significant expenditure in small dense cell-sites in order to realize the promised quality improvements. It turns out that implementing small cell sites is a lot costlier and lot more expensive than the cellular companies had hoped. It also turns out that the technology will only bring major advantages to those areas where there is the densest concentration of customers. That means big city business districts, stadiums, convention centers and hotel districts – but not many other places.
That’s the other side of the economy of scale implementation issue. If 5G is only initially implemented in these dense customer sites, then the vast majority of people will see zero benefit from 5G since they don’t go to these densely packed areas very often. And so there are going to be two economy of scale issues to overcome – making enough 5G equipment to keep the vendors solvent while also selling enough more-expensive phones to use the new 5G cell sites. And all of this will happen as 5G is rolled out in drabs and dribbles as happened with 4G.
The vendors are touting that software defined networking will lower the cost to implement 5G upgrades. That is likely to become true with the electronics after they are first implemented. It will be much easier to make the tiny incremental 5G improvements to cell sites after they have first been upgraded to 5G capability. But RAN Research thinks it’s that initial deployment that is going to be the hurdle. The wireless carriers are unlikely to rush to implement 5G in suburban and rural America until they see overwhelming demand for it – enough demand that justifies upgrading cell sites and deploying small cell sites.
There are a few trends that are going to affect the 5G deployment. The first is the IoT. The cellular industry is banking on cellular becoming the default way to communicate with IoT devices. Certainly that will be the way to communicate with things like smart cars that are mobile, but there will be a huge industry struggle to instead use WiFi, including the much-faster indoor millimeter wave radios for IoT. My first guess is that most IoT users are going to prefer to dump IoT traffic into their landline data pipe rather than buy separate cellular data plans. For now, residential IoT is skewing towards the WiFi and towards smart devices like the Amazon Echo which provide a voice interface for using the IoT.
Another trend that could help 5G would be some kind of government intervention to make it cheaper and easier to implement small cell sites. There are rule changes being considered at the FCC and in several state legislatures to find ways to speed up implementation of small wireless transmitters. But we know from experience that there is a long way to go after a regulatory rule change until we see change in the real world. It’s been twenty years now since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 required that pole owners make their poles available to fiber overbuilders – and yet the resistance of pole owners is still one of the biggest hurdles to fiber deployment. Changing the rules always sounds like a great idea, but it’s a lot harder to change the mindset and behavior of the electric companies that own most of the poles – the same poles that are going to be needed for 5G deployment.
I think RAN Research’s argument about achieving 5G economy of scale is convincing. Vendor excitement and hype aside, they estimated that it would cost $1,800 today to build a 5G capable handset, and the only way to get that price down would be to make hundreds of millions of 5G capable handsets. And getting enough 5G cell sites built to drive that demand is going to be a significant hurdle in the US.