The Death of Millimeter-wave Cellular?

Apple recently announced that is not building millimeter-wave spectrum antennas into the next generation SE iPhone. Interestingly, this is a phone sold by Verizon, which spent a year advertising on TV and showing us speed tests on cellphones that were receiving gigabit speeds.

As a reminder for those who have never encountered the technology, Verizon and AT&T both deployed some millimeter-wave hot spots in downtown areas of major cities at the height of the 5G marketing craze. The frequency was only available on special phones made at the time to receive the faster speeds.

I always assumed that this was a marketing gimmick because it makes no sense as a deployed technology. The speeds can be blazingly fast, but the millimeter-wave signal only carries perhaps 1,000 feet from a hotspot – and that is with zero objects in the path. Millimeter-wave spectrum penetrates nothing, and the technology is so finicky that if you were receiving a signal and turned away from the transmitter, your body would cut off the transmission. The frequency is not well suited for busy urban streets. It can’t reach around corners, barely goes through glass,  and is blocked by anything moving into its path.

Pushing the millimeter-wave fast 5G story was a big part of the early 5G strategy for the cellular carriers. Remember all of the talk about the U.S. losing the 5G war to China? I still chuckle when I occasionally hear that old chestnut today. The federal government had serious discussions about buying Nokia or Ericsson so that we wouldn’t fall behind in 5G. The cellular carriers stirred up everybody in D.C., and we had Congress, the White House, and The FCC all issuing dire warnings about falling behind with 5G. I remember being particularly amused when a big federal government 5G summit was held in South Dakota in 2018 – the last place where 5G, a technology to solve urban cellular data issues, is likely to ever have any impact.

It turns out that the cellular companies had some big motivations for pushing the 5G narrative so hard. In 2018, the 4G networks were getting into trouble. We didn’t see the first fully compliant 4G LTE cell site until that year, so most of the country was still working on some early version of what might be best described as 3.5G. Urban networks were getting so congested that calls and broadband connections were regularly being dropped. Cellular broadband traffic growth was doubling in less than every three years – and network engineers were warning management about the likely collapse of urban networks during busy times.

The primary thing the cellular carriers wanted was more spectrum. It looks like stirring up the public and politicians worked, and the FCC released several choice mid-range bands of spectrum in a shorter time frame than might have been expected. The industry was also hoping for federal handouts to somehow help propel them to 5G – but that never happened in any big way that I could ever see.

The funny thing to me is that I think the cellular companies could have gotten the same thing by just telling the truth – they legitimately needed the FCC to release much-needed spectrum. Every cellphone user would have supported the idea. But nobody ever told the real story, because that would have meant admitting that networks were underperforming. My theory is that the carriers didn’t want to take a hit on stock prices – so they instead orchestrated the 5G circus that had America convinced that 5G was going to solve all of our ills. What is funniest about the whole 5G fiasco is that Oulu University in Finland, which leads the world in 5G research, said at the end of 2021 that it’s still likely to be 2027 until we see the first mature 5G cell site. We’re not behind China with 5G – because nobody has 5G!

It’s not a surprise that Apple is dropping the spectrum from its phones. It costs chip space and power for every additional spectrum that is supported by a cellphone. Cell manufacturers care more about long battery life than they do about a technology that never made it out of the downtowns of a few major cities.

7 thoughts on “The Death of Millimeter-wave Cellular?

  1. Verizon is going gang-busters installing mm-wave 5G in Ann Arbor. The rate of installation is going way up, not down. Most of the main roads are lined with it, and it is being installed on sides streets and parks.

    This is mm-wave 5G, not the C-band.

      • There is a big difference. Verizon is also building fiber along all of those residential streets. The units on the poles are not mm-wave hot spots. They are focused beam wireless units that focus the beam only to the homes of subscribers. In fact, most of the bandwidth to homes is being delivered using CBRS spectrum because Verizon found out that the mm-wave frequencies often had too hard of a time reaching homes because of foliage and other obstacles. These units are not delivering gigabit speeds due to the limitation of the frequency being used – reports are that the product currently is delivering around 300 Mbps symmetrial. Since Verizon has fiber on these streets, they could have built traditional fiber drops, but chose to use the wireless drops instead. They think that will save them money in the long run – although many can’t see how this is cheaper.

        Pure mm-wave hot spots are just that. They sit on a pole or building and blast a signal in every direction, made only to be received by somebody who has purchased a cellphone that can receive the mm-wave signal.

        I know it’s confusing, and one of the reasons is that Verizon calls both of these technologies FWA – fixed wireless access. That is a coy marketing trick because the two technologies are days and nights apart. When Verizon tells Wall Street they are going to build FWA to pass 25 million homes, nobody but Verizon knows which technology they are talking about.

        The stuff downtown and in the parks might be mm-wave technology. This technology only works outside, so it would be kind of dumb to install it on residential streets where people are inside 99% of the time – the mm-waves do not penetrate inside.

        I’m sure they have a mix of the two technologies there, and that’s common. They may even look alike and be in the same case. For reasons I can’t understand, Verizon want people to think these are the same technology.

      • Interesting. What I can tell you is this: I can actually feel the frequencies. Might sound crazy to you, but I do. I am a walking meter. This is why I do not think these are beaming only to homes of subcribers, because when I get about 120 feet from one of these small cells, I can feel it.

        Details: A couple years ago, walking down main road I typically walk back to my home on when I have to drop my car at the mechanic’s. Suddenly, I feel what is like metallic mist coming toward me at an angle. I was actually carrying with me a good RF meter that measures up to 8 GHz (Safe and Sound Pro 2).

        There was absolutely no change on the meter. What? Ah, yes, because the frequencies are mm-wave. I did not know that the small cell was there. I looked around to see what the issue was. I walked back to where I first felt the “metalic mist” (which made me very tired) and paced off the distance. 120 feet. Walked past the small cell, got about 100/120 feet away and no longer felt, though I was exhausted.

        Next year (yep, they were rolling out slowly here), I walk to a different mechanic’s totally different road. No issues whatsoever. What a relief!

        Month later, had to bring the truck back in again. Walk home, suddenly feel incredibly fatigues and that metallic mist. What the heck? Look around. Lo and behold, a brand-new small cell. I paced off the distance. 120 feet.

        As I am on a sidewalk and feel it on both sides, I am skeptical of the beam-forming.

        These are also installed in parks here now.

  2. Apple and other 5G phone makers are dropping mmW spectrum because it consumes too much power, requires line of sight and has a very short range (<200 meters distance from cell site/hotspot to 5G endpoint device). It is not because there are already too many frequencies supported by the 5G/4G phone's antenna/analog front end.

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