Update on the 5G Race

It’s been a while since I checked in to see how the US is doing in the 5G race. I haven’t been following the issue since before the pandemic when the US government was tossing around the idea of buying a controlling interest in Nokia or Ericsson. That idea went nowhere but led to a lot of articles in the business press.

I decided to look anew after seeing recently that the FCC is estimating that it would cost US carriers about $1.8 billion to replace Huawei and ZTE gear in US networks. In June the FCC banned any proceeds from the Universal Service Fund to be used to buy gear from the Chinese manufacturers. The US has been joined by Australia and the UK in banning purchases of the gear. I’m still scratching my head about the requirement to pull out whatever’s been bought in the past. Network engineers tell me it’s not hard to firewall hardware from communicating with the outside, and nobody has yet shown evidence that any of the gear has been transmitting data to the Chinese. It just feels odd to see a trade dispute taken so far as to toss out working electronics.

The real 5G race isn’t about hardware but in the deployment of 5G technology. The cellular carriers are all now bragging about their 5G cellular networks. It’s an interesting marketing claim because from a standards perspective there isn’t yet any cellular traffic that can legitimately be called 5G. From what I can see, the only feature from the 5G specification that has been introduced into networks so far is dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS). This feature allows cellular carriers to simultaneously use the same block of spectrum for both 4G and 5G. This is mostly a preparatory feature that is readying the network for other 5G features – the carriers don’t want to limit future 5G to a small subset of spectrum.

When the carriers brag about 5G, what they are really talking about is the introduction of new blocks of spectrum. They’ve labeled every new block of spectrum as 5G and labeled every phone that can receive the new blocks of spectrum as 5G phones. For now, these phones are more expensive than phones that use the traditional 4G spectrum.

A recent article by Geoffrey Fowler in the Washington Post looked at the difference in 4G and 5G speeds all around the San Francisco Bay area. He drove around with six phones so that he could check 4G and 5G performance on the various carriers. What he found will surprise nobody who has ponied up for the new phones – 5G is mostly not faster than 4G. There are places where the signals for one or the other sets of spectrum were stronger, but in logging lots of miles, he didn’t find any advantage for the more expensive 5G phones. Fowler followed up with executives at the cellular companies who admitted that 5G is not yet faster today than 4G.

This is not surprising. Most of the carriers are currently using new lower frequency bands in the 5G offering. The main characteristic of lower frequency bands is that the signal travels farther but there are fewer bits transmitted with the signal. I would have guessed that since fewer people using the 5G spectrum bands that 5G phones might still be seeing faster speeds, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

The carriers are getting exactly what they hoped for with the 5G phones – they are moving people off of the crowded 4G spectrum bands that were threatening to collapse under the data loads. But unfortunately, just like happened in the early days of 4G, the network performance from a customer perspective is not living up to the marketing hype.

In terms of the 5G race, the US is far behind the rest of the world in 5G speeds. This is again due to the spectrum being used by US cellular carriers. Many other countries have introduced higher mid-range spectrum that they are labeling as 5G, and that means faster cellular speeds. As an example, the average 5G speed in South Korea is more than twice the 5G speeds being delivered in the US.

However, South Korea also offers a cautionary tale about winning the 5G race. The country has deployed well over half of all of the 5G phones being used in the world. However, the South Korean cellular companies are showing no change in average revenue per user – people are not paying more for the 5G experience. And since the experience isn’t actually 5G – they shouldn’t.


A Message to DC – A Quick Fix for the Broadband Gap

Millions of people without broadband are being sent home to work. Even more millions of households without broadband have kids coming home to finish out the school year. It’s not realistic to expect many of these folks to shelter in place to wait out the coronavirus emergency if they don’t have broadband at home. These folks are going to go out every day to find broadband.

There is one way that the federal government can quickly provide broadband to those without it. The government should buy piles of portable WiFi hotspots that work on cellular networks and distribute them to homes that need the broadband to function.

Distributing hotspots is only half of the needed solution. The cellular carriers will want to be compensated for all of the broadband usage on the cellular networks, and the federal government should just write a lump sum checks to Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and the smaller cellular carriers so that people using these hotspots can get the broadband for free during the crisis. We can’t let the carriers bill this as if it is normal cellular data or everybody working at home would get a bill for $500 per month. One interesting idea is for the cellular carriers to connect these hotspots to the newly released spectrum band they’re touting as 5G – they could then claim that 5G saved the day!

The federal government should also distribute funding now to beef up cellular networks. The FCC was already planning to distribute $9 billion later this year using the newly created 5G Fund which is aimed at improving rural 4G. Let’s fund this now out of coronavirus funding and ask the carriers for an accelerated plan to improve cellular data coverage now.

The final challenge is getting the WiFi hotspots into the right hands. This could be done through employers asking for hotspots for employees and for school systems asking for hotspots for students. Those two groups could do the heavy lifting of identifying the homes that have the most immediate need for a broadband solution.

Most urban ISPs have announced plans to make it easier on folks without broadband, but none of those plans helps the millions of rural homes without broadband today. As a country, there may be no better use of federal money than to enable millions of homes to comply with stay-at-home directives while remaining productive. Every employee we can keep working is one less person that is going to need other assistance due to the crisis. Everybody benefits if we can keep students on track to finish the school year.

I’ve heard giant numbers like a trillion dollars, being thrown around that will be needed to keep the economy afloat. What I’m suggesting would cost only a tiny percentage of that. It’s also an idea that will create a greater dollar benefit than the cost of the program. Keeping folks working and paying taxes might be the best possible use of federal funding during this emergency.

We could skip the hotspots and instead subsidize data plans on cellphones. However, using a hotspot makes it easier to create one connection per household. We also don’t want the hotspots to roam, and activating data on cellphones would likely invite people to leave the home.

We also need a fast solution. People need broadband to work at home now, not 3 months or 6 months from now. We don’t want to create a lot of red tape for this and we don’t run this funding through existing programs like SBA or E-Rate, because doing so means nobody gets a hotspot this year. This is a national emergency and we need to treat it as such.

When this crisis is over we hopefully will finally have the discussion about providing more funding for building rural broadband infrastructure – but those are multi-year plans and don’t help with the immediate problem. We need a solution for those without broadband or we’re going to pay a big price for inaction. Getting a mobile hotspot to somebody trying to work in a home provides a solution immediately.

If the federal government doesn’t tackle this, states might want to consider it. Nobody understands more than local politicians the societal benefit of keeping people working. We can either spend a few hundred dollars per home to get broadband or we can spend thousands for the same homes if people can’t work and are unemployed – the math is simple.

Killing 3G

I have bad news for anybody still clinging to their flip phones. All of the big cellular carriers have announced plans to end 3G cellular service, and each has a different timeline in mind:

  • Verizon previously said they would stop supporting 3G at the end of 2019, but now says it will end service at the end of 2020.
  • AT&T has announced the end of 3G to be coming in early 2022.
  • Sprint and T-Mobile have not expressed a specific date but are both expected to stop 3G service sometime in 2020 or 2021.

The amount of usage on 3G networks is still significant. GSMA reported that at the end of 2018 that as many as 17% of US cellular customers still made 3G connections, which accounted for as much as 19% of all cellular connections.

The primary reason cited for ending 3G is that the technology is far less efficient than 4G. A 3G connection to a cell site chews up the same amount of frequency resources as a 4G connection yet delivers far less data to customers. The carriers are also anxious to free up mid-range spectrum for upcoming 5G deployment.

Opensignal measures actual speed performance for millions of cellular connections and recently reported the following statistics for the average 3G and 4G download speeds as of July 2019:

4G 2019 3G 2019
AT&T 22.5 Mbps 3.3 Mbps
Sprint 19.2 Mbps 1.3 Mbps
T-Mobile 23.6 Mbps 4.2 Mbps
Verizon 22.9 Mbps 0.9 Mbps

The carriers have been hesitating on ending 3G because there are still significant numbers of rural cell sites that still don’t offer 4G. The cellular carriers were counting on funding from the FCC’s Mobility Fund Phase II to upgrade rural cell sites. However, that funding program got derailed and delayed when the FCC found there were massive errors in the data provided for distributing that fund. The big carriers were accused by many of rigging the data in a way to give more funding to themselves instead of to smaller rural cellular providers.

The FCC staff conducted significant testing of the reported speed and coverage data and released a report of their findings in December 2019. The testing showed that the carriers have significantly overreported 4G coverage and speeds across the country. This report is worth reading for anybody that needs to be convinced of the garbage data that has been used for the creation of FCC broadband maps. I wish the FCC Staff would put the same effort into investigating landline broadband data provided to the FCC. The FCC Staff recommended that the agency should release a formal Enforcement Advisory including ‘a detailing of the penalties associated with carrier filings that violate federal law’.

The carriers are also hesitant to end 3G since a lot of customers still use the technology. Opensignal says there are several reasons for the continued use of 3G. First, 12.7% of users of 3G live in rural areas where 3G is the only cellular technology available. Opensignal says that 4.1% of 3G users still own old flip phones that are not capable of receiving 4G. The biggest category of 3G users are customers that own a 4G capable phone but still subscribe to a 3G data plan. AT&T is the largest provider of such plans and has not forced customers to upgrade to 4G plans.

The carriers need to upgrade rural cell sites to 4G before they can be allowed to cut 3G dead. In doing so they need to migrate customers to 4G data plans and also notify customers who still use 3G-only flip phones that it’s finally time to upgrade.

One aspect of the 3G issue that nobody is talking about is that AT&T says it is using fixed wireless connections to meet its CAF II buildout requirements. Since the CAF II areas include some of the most remote landline customers, it stands to reason that these are the same areas that are likely to still be served with 3G cell towers. AT&T can’t deliver 10/1 Mbps or faster speeds using 3G technology. This makes me wonder what AT&T has been telling the FCC in terms of meeting their CAF II build-out requirements.

Our Degrading Cellular Networks

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve noticed a lot of degradation in the cellular voice network over the last year or two, and the situation is noticeably worsening over time. For a decade or more the cellular network has been a bastion of strength and reliability. I rely heavily on my cellphone all day for work and for years I haven’t given the cellular network a thought because calls worked. Occasionally I’d get a bad voice connection that could be easily remedied by reinitiating a call. But that happened so infrequently that I barely noticed it – it was never something I considered as a problem.

Over the last year, this all changed. I’ve often had a problem making a call and have had to try the same number a half a dozen times to make a connection. Calls mysteriously drop in mid-call, or even stranger, half of the call goes silent and only one party can be heard. Possibly the worse problem is that there are a lot more calls with poor voice quality – something that I thought was a decade behind us.

I happen to work in a small city and it’s not hard to understand why my cell site would be stressed. Half of the homes in my neighborhood have at least one person working from home, and most spend a lot of time on the phone. Our street is only one block from a busy traffic corridor and is also full of businesses. We also have a significant number of teenagers. I would not be surprised to find that the busy hour on our local cellular network is during the afternoon.

However, this is not just a problem with urban cell sites. I’ve lately been asking others about their cellular calling and at least half of people I’ve asked tell me that the quality of the cellular networks in their own neighborhoods has gotten worse. Many of these folks live in small rural towns.

It’s not hard to understand why this is happening. The cellular companies have embraced the ‘unlimited’ data plans, which while not truly unlimited, have encouraged folks to use their cellular data plans. According to Cisco and OpenVault, the amount of data on cellular networks is now doubling every two years – a scorching growth rate that will accumulate to a 60-fold increase in data usage on the cellular networks in a decade. No network can sustain that kind of traffic growth for very long without first becoming congested and eventually collapsing under the load.

The cellular companies don’t want to openly talk about this crisis. I guess that the first cellular company to use the word ‘crisis’ will see their stock tank, so none of them are talking about why cellular performance is degrading. Instead, the cellular carriers have taken the tactic of saying that we need to remove barriers to 5G and that we need to win the 5G race – but what they want is to find solutions to fix the 4G networks before they crash.

The cellular companies have a 3-prong approach to fix the problem. First, they are deploying small cell sites to relieve the pressure from the big cellular towers. One small cell site in my neighborhood would likely eliminate most of the problems I’ve been having, at least for a little while. Unfortunately, in a network where traffic is doubling every two years, this is a temporary solution.

The cellular companies also have been screaming for new mid-range spectrum, because adding spectrum to cell sites and cellphones expands the data capability at each cell site. Unfortunately, working new spectrum into the cellular networks take time. The FCC continues to slog through the approval process for new cellular spectrum, with the best example being the mess happening with C-Band spectrum. Even when new spectrum is approved there is a significant market delay from the time of approval until a new spectrum has been installed in cell sites and phones.

Finally, the cellular carriers are counting on 5G. There a few aspects of 5G that will significantly improve cellular service. The most important is frequency slicing that will right-size the data path to each customer and will get rid of today’s network that provides a full channel to a customer who is doing some minor broadband task. 5G will also allow for a customer to be connected to a different cell site if their closest site is full. Finally, the 5G specifications call for a major expansion of the number of customers that can be served simultaneously from a cell site. Unfortunately for the cellular carriers, most of the major 5G improvements are still five years into the future. And like with new spectrum, there will be a market delay with each 5G breakthrough as updates make it into enough smartphones to make a difference.

There is a fourth issue that is a likely component of the degrading cellular networks. It’s likely with expanding broadband needs that the backhaul links to cell sites are overloaded at peak times and under stress. It doesn’t matter if all of the above changes are implemented if the backhaul is inadequate – because poor backhaul will degrade any broadband network. The big cellular carriers have been working furiously to build fiber to cell sites to eliminate leased backhaul. But much of the backhaul to cell sites is still leased, and the lease costs are one of the major expenses for cellular companies. The cellular companies are reluctant to pay a lot more for bandwidth, and so it’s likely that at the busiest times of the day that many backhaul routes are now overloaded.

The cellular companies need all of these fixes just to keep up with cellular demand growth. They need many more small cell sites, more frequency, 5G upgrades, and robust backhaul. What I find scary is that all of these fixes might not be enough to solve the problem if cellular demand continues to grow at the same torrid pace. I’ve been thinking about buying a landline for my office – something I got rid of 20 years ago – I don’t know if I can wait for the cellular companies to solve their crisis.

Millimeter Wave Cellular Service

Verizon is claiming to have the first real-world deployment of fast 5G cellular service. They launched an early version of what they are calling 5G in downtown Chicago and Minneapolis. This launch involves the deployment of millimeter wave spectrum.

A review of the cellular performance in FierceWireless showed exactly what was to be expected. This new service will only be available from a few cell sites in each city. For now the service can only be received using a Motorola Z3 handset that has been modified with a 5G Moto Mod adapter.

As would be expected, the millimeter wave broadband was fast, with peak speed measured at 500 Mbps. But also as expected, the coverage area is small, and millimeter wave spectrum is easily blocked by almost any impediment. Walking inside a building or around the corner of a building killed the broadband signal. The signal speed cut in half when received through a window. When not in the range of the millimeter wave signal the phone reverts to 4G, because Verizon is not yet close to implementing any actual 5G standards. This was not a trial of 5G technology – it’s a trial that shows that millimeter wave spectrum can carry a lot of data. That is especially easy to demonstrate when there are only one or two users on a given cell site.

Verizon announced a fee of $10 per month for the faster data speed, but almost immediately said the fee will be waived. This launch is another marketing gimmick letting Verizon get headlines proclaiming 500 Mbps cellular data speeds. The reviewer noted that the Verizon store in downtown Chicago was not ready to provide the product to anybody.

There are big issues with using millimeter wave spectrum for cellular service. I first ask what a cellphone user can do with that kind of speed. A cellphone can already be used to stream a video on a decent 4G connection. Other than software updates there isn’t any real need to download big files on a cellphone. It’s unlikely that the cellular carriers are going to let you tether speeds of that magnitude to a computer.

The other big issues will be the real-life limitations of millimeter wave spectrum outdoors. Since the frequency won’t pass through walls, this is strictly going to be an outdoor walking technology. As the FierceWireless review showed, it’s extremely easy to walk out of coverage. A cellular carrier will need to provide multiple cell sites in very close proximity in order to cover a given area.

It’s hard to think that there will ever be many subscribers willing to pay $10 more per month for a product with these limitations. How many people care about getting faster data speed outside, and only in areas of a city that are close to 5G transmitters? Would many cellular customers pay more so that they could save a few minutes per month to download software updates?

It’s hard to envision that the incremental revenues from customers will ever justify the cost of deploying multiple cell sites within close proximity of each other. T-Mobile already announced that they don’t plan to charge extra for 5G data when it’s available – there is no incentive to offer the product if there is no additional revenue.

What I found interesting is that Verizon also announced that they will be launching this same product in 20 additional urban markets soon, with 30 markets by the end of the year. The company will be using this launch to promote the new Galaxy S10 5G phone that will be able to utilize the millimeter wave spectrum. Verizon is touting the new service by saying that it will provide access to faster streaming, augmented-reality, gaming, and consumer and business applications.

If anything, this launch is a gimmick to sell more of the expensive 5G handsets. I wonder how many people will buy this phone hoping for faster service, only to realize that they have to stand outside close to a downtown millimeter wave cell site to use it. How many people want to go outside to enjoy faster gaming or augmented reality?

This is not to say that millimeter wave spectrum doesn’t have value, but that value will manifest when Verizon or somebody offers an indoor 5G modem that’s connected to a landline broadband connection. That would enable a cellphone to connect to faster gaming or augmented reality. That has some definite possibilities, but that is not cellular service, but rather an indoor broadband connection using a cellphone as the receiver.

I’m really starting to hate these gimmicks. Verizon and AT&T are both painting a false picture of 5G by making everybody think it will provide gigabit speeds everywhere – something that is not even listed as a goal of the 5G specifications. These gimmicks are pure marketing hype. The companies want to demonstrate that they are cutting edge. The gimmicks are aimed even more for politicians who the carriers are courting to support deregulation of broadband in the name of 5G. In the cease of this particular gimmick, Verizon might sell more Samsung 5G phones. But the gimmicks are just gimmicks and this trial is not a real product.

What Are Small Cells?

By far the most confusing industry term that is widely used today is ‘small cell’. I see at least a couple of different articles every day talking about some aspect of small cell deployment. What becomes quickly clear after reading a few such articles is that the small cell terminology is being used to describe a number of different technologies.

A lot of the blame for this confusion comes from the CTIA, the industry group that representing the large cellular carriers. As part of lobbying the FCC last year to get the ruling that allows the carriers to deploy devices in the public rights-of-way the CTIA constantly characterized small cell devices to be about the size of pizza boxes. In reality, there are devices that range from the size of a pizza box up to devices the size of dorm refrigerators.

There are a number of different kinds of deployments all being referred to as small cells. The term small cell brings to mind the idea of devices hung on poles that perform the same functions as the big cellular towers. Fully functional pole-mounted cellular sites are not small devices. The FCC set a limit for a pole-mounted small cell to be no larger than 28 cubic feet, and a cell tower replacement device will use most of that allotted space. Additionally, a full cell tower replacement device generally requires a sizable box of electronics and power supply that sits on the ground – often in cabinets the size of the traditional corner mailbox.

These cell-tower replacements are the devices that nobody wants in front of their house. They are large and can be an eyesore. The cabinets on the ground can block the sidewalk – although lately the carriers have been getting smarter and are putting the electronics in an underground vault. These are the big ‘small cell’ devices that are causing safety concerns for line technicians from other utilities that have to worry about working around the devices to fix storm damage.

Then there are the devices that actually are the size of pizza boxes. While they are being called small cells just like to giant boxes, I would better classify these smaller devices as cellular repeaters. These smaller devices re-originate cellular signals to boost coverage in cellular dead spots. I happen to live in a hilly city and I would love to see more of these devices. Cellular coverage here varies widely block by block according to line-of-sight to the big cellular towers. Cellular carriers can boost coverage in a neighborhood by placing one of these devices within sight of a large tower and then beaming from there to cover the dead spots.

If you look at the industry vendor web sites they claim shipment of millions of small cell sites last year. It turns out that 95% of these ‘small cell’ devices are indoor cellular boosters. Landlords deploy these in office buildings, apartment buildings and other places where cellular coverage is poor. Perhaps the best terminology to describe these devices is a cellular offload device that relieves traffic on cell sites. The indoor units use cellular frequencies to communicate with cellphones but then dump cellular data and voice traffic onto the broadband connection of the landlord. It turns out in urban downtowns that 90% plus of cellular usage is done indoors, and these devices help to meet urban demand cellular without the hassle of trying to communicate through the walls of larger buildings.

The next use of the term small cell is for the devices that Verizon recently used to test wireless broadband in a few test markets. These devices have nothing to do with cellular traffic and would best be described as wireless broadband loops. Verizon is using millimeter wave spectrum to beam broadband connections for a thousand feet or so from the pole-mounted devices.

The general public doesn’t understand the wide array of different wireless devices that are being deployed. The truly cellular devices, for now, are all 4G devices that are being used by the cellular carriers to meet the rapidly-growing demand for cellular data. The industry term for this is densification and the carriers are deploying full cell-tower substitute devices or neighborhood repeaters to try to relieve the pressure on the big cellular towers. These purely-cellular devices will eventually handle 5G when it is rolled out over the next decade.

The real confusion I see is that most people now equate ‘small cell’ with fast data. I’ve talked to several cities recently who thought that requests for small cell attachments mean they are going to get gigabit broadband. Instead, almost every request for a small cell site today is for the purpose of beefing up the 4G networks. These extra devices aren’t going to increase 4G data speeds, aren’t bringing 5G and are definitely not intended to beam broadband into people’s homes. These small cells are being deployed to divvy up the cellular traffic to relieve overloaded cellular networks.

False Advertising for 5G

As has been expected, the wireless carriers are now actively marketing 5G cellular even though there are no actual 5G deployments. The marketing folks are always far in front of the engineers and are proclaiming 5G today much in the same way that they proclaimed 4G long before it was available.

The perfect case in point is AT&T. The company announced the launch of what they are calling 5G Evolution in 239 markets. They are also claiming they will be launching what they are calling standards-based 5G in at least 19 cities in early 2019.

The 5G Evolution product doesn’t contain any part of the new 5G standards. Instead, 5G Evolution is AT&T’s deployment of 4G LTE-Advanced technology, which can be characterized as their first fully-compliant 4G product. This is a significant upgrade that they should be proud of, but I guess their marketing folks would rather call this an evolutionary step towards 5G rather than admit that they are finally bringing mature 4G to the market – a claim they’ve already been making for many years.

What I find most annoying about AT&T’s announcement is the claim that 5G Evolution will “enable peak theoretical wireless speeds for capable devices of at least 400 megabits per second”, although their footnote goes on to say that “actual speeds are lower and will vary”. The 4G standard has been theoretically capable of speeds of at least 300 Mbps in a lab setting since the standard was first announced – but that theoretical speed has no relevance to today’s 4G network that generally delivers an average 4G speed of less than 15 Mbps.

This is like having a fiber-to-the-home provider advertise that their product is capable of speeds of 159 terabits per second, although actual speeds might be something less (that’s the current fastest speed achieved on fiber by scientists at the NICT Network System Research Institute in Japan). The intent of the statement on the AT&T website is clearly aimed at making people think they will soon be getting blazingly fast cellular data – which is not true. This is the kind of false advertising that is overstating the case for 5G (and in this case for 4G) that is confusing the public, politicians and regulators. You can’t really blame policy-makers for thinking that wireless will soon be the only technology we will need when the biggest wireless provider shamelessly claims speeds far in excess of what they will be ever be deploying.

AT&T’s second claim of launching standards-based mobile 5G in 19 markets is a little closer to the truth, but is still not 5G cellular. That service is going to deploy millimeter spectrum hotspots (a technology that is being referred to as Mi-Fi) in selected locations in 19 cities including Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Nashville, Orlando, etc.

These will be true hotspots, similar to what we see in Starbucks, meaning that users will have to be in the immediate vicinity of a hotspot to get the faster service. Millimeter wave hotspots have an even shorter propagation distance than normal WiFi hotspots and the signal will travel for a few hundred feet, at best. The hotspot data won’t roam and will only work for a user while they stay in range of a given hot spot.

AT&T hasn’t said where this will be deployed, but I have to imagine it will be in places like big business hotels, convention centers and indoor sports arenas. The deployment serves several purposes for AT&T. In those busy locations it will provide an alternate source of broadband for AT&T customers who have a phone capable of receiving the Mi-Fi signal. This will relieve the pressure on normal cellular data locally, while also providing a wow factor for AT&T customers that get the faster broadband.

However, again, AT&T’s advertising is deceptive. Their press releases make it sound like the general public in these cities will soon have much faster cellular data, and they will not. Those with the right phone that find themselves in one of the selected venues will see the faster speeds, but this technology will not be deployed to the wider market in these cities. Millimeter wave hotspots are an indoor technology and not of much practical use outside. The travel distances are so short that a millimeter wave hot spot loses a significant percentage of its strength in the short distance from a pole to the ground.

I can’t really blame the marketing folks at AT&T for touting imaginary 5G. It’s what’s hot in the marketplace today and what the public has been primed to expect. But just like the false hype when 4G was first introduced, cellular customers are not on the verge of seeing blazingly fast cellphone service in the places they live and work. This advertising seems to be intended to boost the AT&T brand, but it also might be defensive since other cellular carriers are making similar claims.

Unfortunately, this kind of false advertising plants the notion for politicians and policy-makers that cellular broadband will soon be all we will need. That’s an interesting corporate tactic to take by AT&T which is also building more fiber-to-the-premise right now than anybody else. These false claims seems to be most strongly competing with their own fiber broadband. But as I’ve always said, AT&T wears many hats and I imagine that their own fiber folks are as annoyed by this false advertising as the rest of us in the industry.

A 5G Timeline

Network World recently published their best guess at a timeline for 5G cellular deployment. As happens with all new technologies that make a big public splash, the actual deployment is likely to take a lot longer than what the public expects.

They show the timeline as follows:

  • 2017 – Definition, specification, requirements, technology development and technology field tests
  • 2019/20 – Formal specifications
  • 2021 – Initial production service rollouts
  • 2025 – Critical mass
  • 2030+ – Phase-out of 4G infrastructure begins

There is nothing surprising about this timeline, and in the cellular world we saw something similar with the roll-out of both 3G and 4G and there is no reason to think that 5G will be introduced any faster. There are an incredible number of things that must come to bear before 5G can be widely available.

Just to be clear, this timeline is talking about the use of the 5G standard for cellular service, as opposed to the same 5G terminology that is being used to describe high-speed radio connections used to deliver broadband over short distances. The use of the term 5G is going to be confusing the public for years, until some point where we will need a different name for the two different technologies.

Like with any new technology, it will probably be fifteen years until there is equipment that incorporates the full 5G specification. We are just now finally seeing a full implementation of fully-compliant 4G electronics. This means that early 5G roll-outs will only implement a few of the new features of 5G. Just like with 4G we can then expect successive future 5G roll-outs as new features are introduced and the technology inches forward. We won’t go straight to 5G, but will work our way through 4.1G and 4.2G until we finally get to the full 5G specification.

Here are just a few of the things that have to happen before 5G cellular is widely deployed.

  • Standards have to be completed. Some of the first generation standards will be completed by the end of this year, but that’s not the end of the standards process. There will be continued standards developed over the next few years that look at the practical issues of deploying the technology.
  • Then equipment must be developed that meets the new standards. While many wireless companies are already working on this, it takes a while to go from lab prototype to mass production.
  • True field trials are then needed. In the wireless world we have always seen that there is a big difference between the capabilities that can be tested in a lab versus the real performance that can be had in differing outdoor environments. Real field trials can’t proceed until there are finished deployments that are not prototypes that are then tested in many different environments.
  • Then the cellular companies have to start deploying the equipment into the field. That means not only upgrading the many existing cell towers, but it’s going to mean deploying into smaller neighborhood cell sites. As I’ve written about recently, this means building a lot of new fiber and it means solving the problems of deploying small cell sites in neighborhoods. If we’ve learned anything from the recent attempt by the cell companies to deploy small 4G cell sites it’s that these two issues are going to be a major impediment to 5G deployment. Just paying for all of the needed fiber is a huge hurdle.
  • One of the biggest challenges with a new cellular technology is introducing it into handsets. Handset makers will like the cachet of selling 5G, but the biggest issue with cellphones is battery power and it’s going to be costly and inefficient to deploy the more complicated 5G big-MIMO antennae in handsets. That’s going to make the first generation of 5G handsets expensive. This is always the catch-22 of a new cellular technology – cellphone makers don’t want to commit to making big volumes of more-expensive phones until customer can actually use the new technology, and the cellphone makers won’t deploy too much of the 5G technology until there are enough handsets in the world to use it. I’ve seen some speculation that this impasse could put a real hitch in 5G cellular deployment.

To a large degree the cellular industry it its own worst enemy. They have talked about 5G as the savior of all of our bandwidth problems, when we know that’s not true. Let’s not forget that when 4G was introduced fifteen years ago that the industry touted ubiquitous 100 Mbps cellphone connections – something that is still far above our capabilities today. One thing not shown on the timeline is the time when we finally get actual 5G capabilities on our cellphones. It’s likely to be 15 years from now, at about the time when we have shifted our attention to 6G.

Is our Future Mobile Wireless?

I had a conversation last week with somebody who firmly believes that our broadband future is going to be 100% mobile wireless. He works for a big national software company that you would recognize and he says the company believes that the future of broadband will be wireless and they are migrating all of their software applications to work on cellphones. If you have been reading my blog you know I take almost the opposite view, but there are strong proponents of a wireless future, and it’s a topic worth continually revisiting.

Certainly we are doing more and more things by cellphone. But I think those that view future broadband as mobile are concentrating on faster mobile data speeds but are ignoring the underlying overall data capacity of cellular networks. I still think that our future is going to become even more reliant on fiber in order to handle the big volumes of bandwidth we will all need. This doesn’t mean that I don’t love cellphone data – but I think it’s a complement for landline broadband and not an equivalent substitute. Cellphone networks have major limitations and they are not going to be able to keep up with our need for bandwidth capacity. Even today the vast majority of cellphone data is handed off to landline networks through WiFi. And in my mind that just makes a cellphone into another terminal on your landline network.

Almost everybody understands the difference in quality between using your cellphone in your home using WiFi versus doing the same tasks using only the cellular network. I largely use my cellphone for reading news articles. And while this is a lot lighter application than watching video, I find that I usually have problems opening articles on the web when I’m out of the house. Today’s 4G speeds are still pretty poor and the national average download speed is reported to be just over 7 Mbps.

I think all of the folks who think cellphones are the future are counting on 5G to make a huge difference. But as I’ve written many times, it will be at least a decade before we see a mature 5G cellular network – and even then the speeds are not likely to be hugely faster than the 4G specification today. 5G is really intended to increase the stability of broadband connections (less dropped calls) and the number of connections (able to connect to a lot of IoT devices). The 5G specifications are not even shooting for at a huge speed increase, with the specification calling for 100 Mbps download cellular speeds, which translates into an average of perhaps 50 Mbps connections for all of the customers within a cell site. Interestingly, that’s the same target speed of the 4G specification.

And those greater future speeds sounds great. Since a cellphone connection by definition is for one user, a faster speed means that a cellular connection will support a 4K video stream eventually. But what this argument ignores is that a home a decade from now is going to be packed with devices wanting to make simultaneous connections to the Internet. It is the accumulated volume of usage from all of those devices that is going to add up to huge broadband demand for homes.

Already today homes are packed with broadband hungry devices. We have smart TVs, cellphones, laptops, desktops and tablets all wanting to connect to the network. We have other bandwidth hungry applications like gaming boxes and surveillance cameras. More and more of us are cutting the cord and watching video online. And then there are going to piles of new devices with smaller broadband demands, but which in total will add up to significant bandwidth. Further, a lot of applications we use are now in the cloud. My home uses a lot of bandwidth every day just backing up my data files, connecting to software in the cloud, making VoIP calls, and automatically updating software and apps.

I’ve touted a statistic many times that you might be tired of hearing, but I think it’s at the heart of the matter. The amount of bandwidth used by homes has been doubling every three years since 1980, and there is no end in sight to that trend. Already today a 4G connection is inadequate to support the average home. If you don’t think that’s true, talk to the homes now using AT&T’s fixed LTE connections that deliver 10 Mbps. That kind of speed is not adequate today to provide enough bandwidth to use the many broadband services I discussed above. Cellular connections are already too slow today to provide a reasonable home broadband, even as AT&T is planning to foist these connections on millions of rural homes.

There is no reason to think that 5G will be able top satisfy the total broadband needs of a home. The only way it might do that is if we end up in a world where we have to buy a small cellular subscription for every device in our home – I know I would prefer to instead connect all of my devices to WiFi to avoid such fees. Yes, 5G will be faster, but a dozen years from now when 5G is finally a mature cellular technology, homes will need a lot more bandwidth and a 5G connections then will feel just as inadequate then as 4G feels today.

Unless we get to a future point where the electronics get so cheap that there will be a ‘cell site’ for every few homes, then it’s hard to figure that cellular can ever be a true substitute for landline broadband. And even if such a technology develops you still have to ask if it would make any sense to deploy. Those small cell sites are largely going to have to be fiber fed to deliver the needed bandwidth and backhaul. And in that case small cell sites might not be any cheaper than fiber directly to the premise, especially when considering the lifecycle costs of the cell site electronics. Even if we end up with that kind of network – it’s would not really be a cellular network as much as it would be using wireless loops as the last few feet of a landline network – something that for years we have called fiber-to-the-curb. Such a network would still require us to build fiber almost everywhere.

Standards for 5G

itu_logo_743395401Despite all of the hype that 5G is right around the corner, it’s important to remember that there is not yet a complete standard for the new technology.

The industry just took a big step on February 22 when the ITU released a draft of what it hopes is the final specification for 5G. The document is heavy in engineering detail and is not written for the layman. You will see that the draft talks about a specification for ‘IMT-2020’ which is the official name of 5G. The goal is for this draft to be accepted at a meeting of the ITU-R Study Group in November.

This latest version of the standard defines 13 metrics that are the ultimate goals for 5G. A full 5G deployment would include all of these metrics. What we know that we will see is commercial deployments from vendors claiming to have 5G, but which will actually meet only some parts of a few of these metrics. We saw this before with 4G, and the recent deployment of LTE-U is the first 4G product that actually meets most of the original 4G standard. We probably won’t see a cellular deployment that meets any of the 13 5G metrics until at least 2020, and it might be five to seven more years after that until fully compliant 5G cellular is deployed.

The metric that is probably the most interesting is the one that establishes the goal for cellular speeds. The goals of the standard are 100 Mbps download and 50 Mbps upload. Hopefully this puts to bed the exaggerated press articles that keep talking about gigabit cellphones. And even should the technology meet these target speeds, in real life deployment the average user is probably only going to receive half those speeds due to the fact that cellular speeds decrease rapidly with distance from a cell tower. Somebody standing right next to a cell tower might get 100 Mbps, but even as close as a mile away the speeds will be considerably less.

Interestingly, these speed goals are not much faster than is being realized by LTE-U today. But the new 5G standard should provide for more stable and guaranteed data connections. The standard is for a 5G cell site to be able to connect to up to 1 million devices per square kilometer (a little more than a third of a square mile). This, plus several other metrics, ought to result in stable 5G cellular connections – which is quite different than what we are used to with 4G connections. The real goal of the 5G standard is to provide connections to piles of IoT devices.

The other big improvement over 4G are the expectations for latency. Today’s 4G connections have data latencies as high as 20 ms, which accounts for most problems in loading web pages or watching video on cellphones. The new standard is 4 ms latency, which would improve cellular latency to around the same level that we see today on fiber connections. The new 5G standard for handing off calls between adjoining cell sites is 0 ms, or zero delay.

The standard increases the demand potential capacity of cell sites and provides a goal for the ability of a cell site to process peak data rates of 20 Gbps down and 10 Gbps up. Of course, that means bringing a lot more bandwidth to cell towers and only extremely busy urban towers will ever need that much capacity. Today the majority of fiber-fed cell towers are fed with 1 GB backbones that are used to satisfy upload and download combined. We are seeing cellular carriers inquiring about 10 GB backbones, and we need a lot more growth to meet the capacity built into the standard.

There are a number of other standards. Included is a standard requiring greater energy efficiency, which ought to help save on handset batteries – the new standard allows for handsets to go to ‘sleep’ when not in use. There is a standard for peak spectral efficiency which would enable 5G to much better utilize existing spectrum. There are also specifications for mobility that extend the goal to be able to work with vehicles going as fast as 500 kilometers per hour – meaning high speed trains.

Altogether the 5G standard improves almost every aspect of cellular technology. It calls for more robust cell sites, improved quality of the data connections to devices, lower energy requirements and more efficient hand-offs. But interestingly, contrary to the industry hype, it does not call for gigantic increases of cellular handset data speeds compared to a fully-compliant 4G network. The real improvements from 5G are to make sure that people can get connections at busy cell sites while also providing for huge numbers of connections to smart cars and IoT devices. A 5G connection is going to feel faster because you ought to almost always be able to make a 5G connection, even in busy locations, and that the connection will have low latency and be stable, even in moving vehicles. It will be a noticeable improvement.