Is the Line Between Wireless and Wireline Blurring?

In the Bernstein Strategic Conference in May, Ronan Dunne, Verizon CEO and EVP for Verizon Consumer talked about his vision for the future of 5G. During that presentation, he made a statement that has been bugging me for weeks, so I finally had to write about it. He said that he can foresee a day when consumers will purchase home broadband in the same way that they buy wireless service today. He said that will happen because the line between the wireless and wireline business are blurring.

Dunne is talking about a future when 5G is ubiquitous and where people won’t perceive a difference between landline broadband and 5G broadband. In a term used by an economist, Dunne foresees a day when wireless broadband is a pure substitute for landline broadband – where a customer won’t perceive a functional difference between the two products.

Verizon offers several wireless products, so let’s talk about them individually. The predominant Verizon product that is in every market is cellular broadband. This uses cell sites to beam voice and data traffic to cellphones or other devices that are connected to a cellular data plan. Those cellular plans are incredibly stingy in terms of the amount of broadband that can be used in a month, with the unlimited plans offering a little more than 20 gigabytes of data before a user has to pay more or become restricted. The specifications for 5G set a goal of 100 Mbps for cellular broadband speeds within a decade. That kind of speed might be a substitute for landline broadband today from a speed perspective. But networks are not likely to achieve these speeds for at least five more years, and by then I think cable companies will be considering increase urban broadband speeds to something like 250 Mbps. I have to question if cellular broadband speeds can keep up with the speeds provided by landline connections.

Of more importance is that cellular speeds drop when entering a building. Anybody who has walked into a large building using their cellphone understands that cellular signals don’t perform as well indoors as outdoors. By the time I walk 100 feet into my neighborhood grocery store, I often have zero bars of data. While speeds don’t drop that drastically in most homes, when outdoor cellular speeds hit 100 Mbps, indoor speeds in most homes might hit half that number. With slower speeds and incredibly stingy data caps it’s hard to see cellular broadband as a pure substitute for a landline broadband connection.

I also don’t think that the gimmick product that Verizon and others are selling in urban city centers that offers gigabit speeds using millimeter wave spectrum is a landline substitute. The product requires closely spaced small cell sites fed by fiber – but the big gotcha is that the millimeter wave spectrum won’t penetrate a building and barely even make it through a pane of glass. This is an outdoor product for which I still struggle to understand a willing market. It’s certainly not a substitute for landline broadband, except perhaps for somebody who is always outdoors.

The newest wireless product is Verizon’s fixed wireless access (FWA) that beams a broadband signal into the home from a pole-mounted transmitter at the curb using millimeter wave spectrum. I have to suspect that this is the product Dunne is talking about. I would agree with him that this is a pure substitute for landline broadband. But that’s because this is just another variation of landline broadband. This technology has historically been referred to as fiber-to-the-curb. Verizon is using a wireless transmission instead of a fiber line for the last hundred feet to reach a home – but this technology requires building the same fiber into neighborhoods as fiber-to-the-home. This is not a wireless technology since 99% of the network is still comprised of fiber. Anybody using this service can walk to their curb to see the fiber that is carrying their broadband. This technology is a clear substitute for a landline fiber drop – but it’s not a wireless network other than for the last 100 feet to a home.

The other way to challenge Dunne’s vision is by comparing the volume of traffic used by landline and wireless networks. The vast majority of data traffic is still carried over wires and the gulf between the data carried by each technology is widening every year. Consider the following chart from Cisco from 2019 that shows the volumes of monthly data traffic in North America by type. This is expressed in exabytes (one billion gigabytes).

Monthly Exabytes 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022
Homes 35 43 53 64 75 90
Cellular 1.3 1.8 2.5 3.4 4.5 5.9
Business 6.5 8.3 10.3 12.8 15.5 18.5
Total 43 53 66 80 95 114

Both home and business broadband are carried on wires. In 2020, only a little more than 4% of all of the data traffic in North America is carried wirelessly. For wireless technology to be a pure substitute for wireline data, wireless networks would have to be capable of carrying a much bigger share of data – many times what they carry today. The laws of physics argue against that, particularly since landline data usage is growing at an exponential rate. It’s hard to envision wireless networks in our lifetime that can handle the same volumes of data as fiber-based landline networks.

This is not intended as a major criticism of what Dunne said. The country will be better off if Verizon offers a competitive alternative to the cable companies. However, Verizon is like the other cellular companies and can’t talk about 5G without overstating the potential. I know has to keep hyping 5G for Wall Street and I sympathize with that need. But we are still very far from a day when the average household will view landline and wireless data to be pure substitutes.

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