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.

Looking Closer at 5G

SONY DSCCisco 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.

Issues Facing Cellular Networks

Cell-TowerMost networks today are under stress due to growing broadband traffic. The networks that are easily the most stressed are cellular networks and I think that there can be lessons learned in looking how mobile providers are struggling to keep up with demand. Consider the following current issues faced by cellular network owners:

Traffic Volume Growth. Around the world cellular networks are seeing between 60% to 120% annual growth in data volumes. The problem with that kind of growth is that as soon as any upgrade is made to a part of the network it is consumed by the growth. This kind of growth means constant choke points in the network and problems encountered by customers.

The large cellular companies like Verizon and AT&T are handling this with big annual capital budgets for network improvements. But they will be the first to tell you that even with those expenditures they are only putting band-aids on the problem and are not able to get ahead of the demand curve.

WiFi Offload Not Effective. For years cellular networks have talked about offloading data to WiFi. But the industry estimates are that only between 5% and 15% of data through cellphones is being handled by WiFi. This figure does not include usage in homes and offices where the phone user elects to use their own local network, but rather is the traffic that is offloaded when users are outside of their base environment. Finding ways to increasing WiFi offload would lower the pressure on mobile networks.

Traffic has Moved Indoors. An astounding 75% of mobile network traffic originates from inside buildings. Historically mobile traffic came predominantly from automobiles and people outside, but the move indoors looks like a permanent new phenomenon driven by video and data usage.

The biggest impact of this shift is that most cellular networks were designed and the towers spaced for outdoor customers and so the towers and radios are in the wrong places to best serve where the volume is greatest today. This trend is the number one driver of micro cell sites that are aimed at relieving congestion for specific locations.

Network Problems Can be Extremely Local. The vagaries of wireless delivery mean that there can be network congestion at a location but no network issues as close as 50 yards away. This makes it very hard to diagnose and fix network issues. Problems can pop up and disappear quickly. A few more large data users than normal can temporarily cripple a given cell site.

Network owners are investigating technologies that will allow customers to pick up a more distant cell site when their closest one is full. Wireless networks have always allowed for this but it’s never worked very well in practice. The carriers are looking for a more dynamic process that will find he best way to serve each customer quickly in real time.

Networks are Operating too Many Technologies. It’s not unusual to find a given cell site operating several versions of 3G and 4G and sometimes still even 2G. The average cell site carries 2.2 different technologies, provided by 1.3 different vendors.

Cellular operators are working quickly towards software defined networks that will allow them to upgrade huge numbers of cell sites to a new version of software at the same time. They are also working to separate voice and data to different frequencies making it easier to handle each separately. Finally, the large cellular carriers are looking to develop and manufacture their own custom equipment to cut down on the number of vendors.

Still Too Many Failures. There are still a lot of dropped voice calls, and 80% of them are caused by mobility failures, meaning a failure of the network to handle a customer on the move. 50% of dropped data sessions are due to capacity issues.

Cellular providers are looking for the capacity to more dynamically assign radio resources on the fly at different times of the day. It’s been shown that there are software techniques that can optimize the local network and can reduce failures by as much as 25%.

The 5G Hype

Cell-TowerBoth AT&T and Verizon have had recent press releases about how they are currently testing 5G cellular data technology, and touting how wonderful it’s going to be. The AT&T Press release on 5G included the following statements:

Technologies such as millimeter waves, network function virtualization (NFV), and software-defined networking (SDN) will be among the key ingredients for future 5G experiences. AT&T Labs has been working on these technologies for years and has filed dozens of patents connected with them. . . . We expect 5G to deliver speeds 10-100 times faster than today’s average 4G LTE connections. Customers will see speeds measured in gigabits per second, not megabits.

AT&T went on to say that they are testing the technology now and plan to start applying it in a few applications this year in Austin, TX.

This all sounds great, but what are the real facts about 5G? Consider some of the following:

Let’s start with the standard for 5G. It has not yet been developed and is expected to be developed by 2018. The Next Generation Mobile Network Alliance (the group that will be developing the standard) states that the standard is going to be aimed at enabling the following:

  • Data rates of several tens of megabits per second should be supported for tens of thousands of users;
  • 1 gigabit per second can be offered simultaneously to workers on the same office floor;
  • Several hundreds of thousands of simultaneous connections to be supported for massive sensor deployments

How does this stack up against AT&T’s claims? First, let’s talk about how 4G does today. According to OpenSignal (who studies the speeds from millions of cellular connections), the average LTE download speeds in the 3rd quarter of last year for the major US carriers was 6 Mbps for Sprint, 8 Mbps for AT&T, and 12 Mbps for both Verizon and T-Mobile.

The standard is going to be aimed to improve average speeds for regular outdoor usage to ‘several tens of megabits per second’ which means speeds of maybe 30 Mbps. That is a great data speed on a cellphone, but it is not 10 to 100 times faster than today’s 4G speeds, but instead a nice incremental bump upward.

Where the hype comes from is the part of the standard that talks about delivering speeds within an office. With 5G that is going to be a very different application, and that very well might achieve gigabit speeds. This is where the millimeter waves come into play. As it turns out, AT&T and Verizon are talking about two totally different technologies and applications, but are purposefully making people think there will be gigabit cellular data everywhere.

The 5G standard is going to allow for the combination of multiple very high frequencies to be used together to create a very high bandwidth data path of a gigabit or more. But there are characteristics of millimeter wavelengths that limit this to indoor usage inside the home or office. For one, these frequencies won’t pass through hardly anything and are killed by walls, curtains, and to some extent even clear windows. And the signal from these frequencies can only carry large bandwidth a very short distance – at the highest bandwidth perhaps sixty feet. This technology is really going to be a competitor to WiFi but using cellular frequencies and standards. It will allow the fast transfer of data within a room or an office and would provide a wireless way to transmit something like Google’s gigabit broadband around an office without wires.

But these millimeter waves are not going to bring the same benefits outdoors that they can do indoors. There certainly can be places where somebody could get much faster speeds from 5G outdoor – if they are close to a tower and there are not many other users. But these much faster speeds are not going to work, for example, for somebody in a moving car. The use of multiple antennas for multiple high frequencies is going to require an intricate and complicated antenna array at both the transmitter and the receiver. But in any case the distance limitations and the poor penetration ability of millimeter frequencies means this application will never be of much use for widespread outdoor cellphone coverage.

So 5G might mean that you will be able to get really fast speeds inside your home, at a convention center or maybe a hotel, assuming that those places have a very fast internet backbone connection. But the upgrade to what you think of as cellular data is going to be a couple-fold increase in data speeds for the average user. And even that is going to mean slightly smaller coverage circles from a given cell tower than 4G.

The problem with this kind of hype is that it convinces non-technical people that we don’t need to invest in fiber because gigabit cellular service is coming very soon. And nothing could be further from the truth. There will someday be gigabit speeds, but just not in the way that people are hoping for. And both big companies make this sound like it’s right around the corner. There is no doubt that the positive press over this are is great for AT&T and Verizon. But don’t buy the hype – because they are not promising what people think they are hearing.

Our Lagging 4G Networks

Cell-TowerI have to scratch my head when I read about people who rave about the 4G data speeds they get. First, I travel all over the country and I have yet to see a 4G data speed above 20 Mbps. And yet I’ve seen claims in various online forums for speeds as high as 60 Mbps. I’ve been in a number of major cities in the last six months and have not once seen speeds that I would consider fast.

Second, a report just came out from OpenSignal, a company that provides an app that maps cellular coverage. They collected data recently from 325,000 users around the world and used that data to compare the 4G networks in 140 different countries. Their data showed that the US has the 14th slowest 4G of all these countries at an average paltry speed of 10 Mbps.

Hungary, Denmark, South Korea, Romania, Singapore, and New Zealand have the fastest 4G, all with average speeds of above 25 Mbps, with New Zealand seeing an average speed of 36 Mbps download.

I often run speed tests, but the real way to test 4G speeds is by trying to open web pages I often use at home. I know it’s generally far more efficient to use an app rather than the mobile web, but I open web pages just to see how fast coverage is. It’s well known that speed test results can be rigged by your carrier who knows you are using a speed test site. What I generally find is that web pages that leap onto my screen at home seem to take forever to load on my cellphone, and sometimes they never load.

Why does this matter? I think it matters because there are tons of industry pundits who opine that our broadband future is wireless and that we don’t need to be investing in fiber. They say that wireless is going to get so fast that nobody will feel the need for a landline based internet connection. For a whole long list of reasons I think that argument is totally bosh. Consider the following:

  • Cellular data speeds drop quickly with distance from the cell tower. Today cell phone towers are not situated for data coverage and were built to handle voice traffic. A cell tower can complete a voice call at a much greater distance from the tower than it can make a strong data connection.
  • We could always build more towers to bring transmitters closer to people. But for those new towers to work they are going to have to be fiber fed, something that very few companies are willing to invest in.
  • Cell phone signals don’t penetrate structures very well. I recently visited my dentist. In the parking lot I was easily able to read news articles on Flipboard. I then walked into the waiting room, which has big windows to the outside world, but the ability to read articles slowed down a lot. Then when I was taken back to an interior room that was only one room further from the outside, I couldn’t even get the app to open. This is not an unusual experience and I see it often.
  • Cell sites can only handle a limited number of customers and they get overwhelmed and degrade if they get more demand than optimum. And the more bandwidth that is delivered, the easier it is for a cell site to reach capacity.
  • The various swaths of spectrum used for cellular data each have their own unique limitations. In many cases the spectrum is carved into somewhat small channels (which was done before we conceived using the spectrum for data) and it’s very hard to cobble together a large wireless data path. It generally means linking several frequencies to a given customer data path, which is both complicated and somewhat taxing on a cellphone.
  • Data caps, data caps, data caps. Let’s face it, as long as the cellphone companies want to charge $10 per downloaded gigabit then they cannot be a serious contender for anybody’s real life data usage. I estimate that my household downloads at least 500 gigabits per month at home and I don’t think we are unusual. If I was paying cellphone data rates that would cost me an astounding $5,000 per month. Even should they cut their rates by 90% this would still cost an eye-popping $500 per month. As long as cellphone data rates are 100 times higher than landline rates they are something you use to casually browse the news, not as a real internet connection.

The Urban / Rural Gap

Seattle-SkylineI have written a lot about the urban/rural broadband gap. I work with a lot of rural communities that have either no broadband or connectivity so slow it shouldn’t count as broadband. In today’s world it’s nearly as frustrating to be stuck with a 1 Mbps Internet connection as it is to have no connection.

But in the last two weeks I have spent time in places like Philadelphia and Seattle/Tacoma and it strikes me that there are now a huge number of ‘gaps’ between urban places and the rest of the US. People in those urban places have opportunities that the rest of us don’t have. The tech press is full of news about various new start-ups, and a lot of these new businesses only do business in big cities. I suspect that people who haven’t recently spent time in downtown cities don’t realize how fast life there is changing.

So what kind of gaps am I talking about? Here are some examples, though you can find plenty more:

  • Wireless Coverage. There is a huge gap between the quality of cellular data in cities and the rest of the country. I routinely visit suburban and rural places where you still have to hunt for a signal. In the early days of cellular this was common everywhere and it used to be comical to watch people roving around airports trying to catch a bar of service. But this problem has largely been solved in urban areas. Now most urban places not only have good coverage, but there is usually good 4G coverage almost everywhere. This means that people in cities can use apps that don’t work well, or at all, in places with worse coverage. But even in urban areas there are holes in the coverage. For example, I talk to a friend in DC who loses voice coverage every time he drives across one of the Potomac bridges. But overall, the cellular experience in urban areas is far superior to the coverage in the rest of the country.
  • Sharing Economy. While the sharing economy is booming in urban areas, it’s harder to find anywhere else. The concept of sharing resources is applied to many services people need in cities. Cities have Uber and Lyft which makes it a lot easier to get around without a car. But if somebody in a city wants a car there are numerous vehicle sharing services like Zipcar and Car2Go where you can conveniently share a fleet of cars with others and use one whenever you need it. You can also walk up and grab a shared bicycle using Spinlister or other bike sharing services.
  • Delivery of Basic Services. It’s now possible to get almost anything delivered to you on demand if you live in a city. I live in an upscale small town in Florida and our only food delivery is a few pizza places. But in cities there are delivery services that will bring you food from almost every restaurant. People in cities now routinely shop for groceries online and have them delivered. And almost anything else you can imagine can be routinely and affordably delivered in a city.
  • Instant Shipping. There has been a lot of press in the last few years about Amazon and other delivery services offering same day, or even just a few hour, shipping. But these speedy services are only available in cities.
  • Ubiquitous WiFi. It is getting to the point in cities where you can walk around and find WiFi almost everywhere. It’s still a hassle at times to keep logging into new networks, but that is going to be fixed soon with the widespread deployment of Hotspot 2.0. Free WiFi allows people in cities to stay connected cheaply everywhere, which is a huge contrast with the rest of the country where there might be WiFi in a few restaurants and other places, but otherwise public WiFi is a rarity.

There have always been differences between living in a city versus living other places. But the proliferation of these better services in the cities is widening the gap much more than in the past. Years ago I lived in downtown cities like Dallas, St. Louis, and San Francisco and the differences were not nearly as great as they are today. Cities have always been noisier and more crowded and hard places to own a vehicle. Of course there has always been the added benefits of the accessibility of a lot of choices for food, entertainment, and culture. But overall it wasn’t all that different living in a city and you didn’t experience a huge change in lifestyle when you went outside the city.

But the proliferation of easy-to-use services, largely fueled by the Internet, is making city life very different than what the rest of us experience. One can imagine people being raised in the city who are going to feel like life elsewhere in the US is an alien experience. And these differences are going to grow greater as cities get even more services that are enabled by ubiquitous bandwidth and that also benefit by the economy of scale of large places. For many years it’s been common for young professionals to take jobs in big cities and then move out to the suburbs when they have kids and a family. But people that get used to the amazing service economy in cities might find that transition harder to accept than in the past.

What is 5G?

Cell-TowerThe International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has created an official plan to bring 5G data to the market by 2020. So what is 5G and how does it differ from 4G? The goal of 5G is to increase the data capacity of cell sites, reduce latency, and increase the distance that can be served from a cell site. The goal of 5G is to build a wireless data path with built-in intelligence that can maximize the data delivery to a given handset or device. There is no specific bandwidth goal in the 5G plan, but it’s assumed to be a lot faster than today’s 4G networks.

But there are a lot of challenges to overcome to get to that future vision. Delivering more bandwidth is going to require more spectrum. Every slice of spectrum in use has limitations imposed by physics, and since today’s spectrum is already stressed, achieving 5G will mean adding more bands of spectrum into the cellular network.

It looks like the ITU is depending upon using both existing WiFi spectrum as well as a lot of higher frequencies that are not in use today. I’ve recently written about the wireless industry’s hope of poaching existing WiFi spectrum and I hope the FCC stops that attempt in its tracks. If 5G is ever allowed to use WiFi then that spectrum will quickly become a cellular spectrum that won’t be useful for anything else.

There is a lot of development work to be done to use higher frequencies, particularly for handsets. The higher the frequency used, the bigger the challenge to hold a connection with a non-fixed receiver like a handset. Even if they solve these issues, the higher frequencies they are considering, by definition, travel very short distances, and so the higher frequency portion of 5G will only benefit those very close to a cell site. This might be a great solution inside of a convention center, but not so much in the outside world.

What all of this means is that a 5G network is going to require a lot more cell sites packed closer together than today’s network. That has a lot of implications. First, it means a lot more investment in towers or in mini-cell sites of some type. But it also means a lot more fiber to feed the new cell sites. And those two factors together mean that any 5G solution is likely to be an urban solution only, or a suburban solution only for those places where a lot of users are packed tightly together. No wireless company is going to invest in a lot more 5G towers and fiber to cover suburban housing sprawl and certainly nobody will invest in the technology in rural areas.

We already have a cellular wireless divide today with urban areas getting pretty decent 4G and rural areas with 3G and even some 2G. Expect that gulf to become greater as high-bandwidth technologies come into play. This is the big catch-22 of wireless. Rural jurisdictions have always been told to wait a while and not clamor for fiber because there will eventually be a great wireless solution for them. But nobody is going to invest in rural 5G any more than they have invested in rural fiber. So even if 5G is made to work, it’s not going to bring a wireless solution to anywhere outside of cities.

I’ve read a number of technologists who are skeptical about the targeted 2020 date for 5G, but it’s the nature of progress to set aggressive goals in order to goad improvement. But when you look at all of the issues that must resolved to implement 5G, 2020 looks unrealistic.

Instead, what is likely to happen is that the carriers will implement some pieces of 5G over time as each technological challenge is solved. This means we are likely to see a whole series of incremental upgrades over the next decade rather than one big flash-cut to a faster data network. This will provide numerous marketing opportunities and I would expect that by the time that the ITU’s version of 5G is fully implemented we will be calling it 10G. After all, we are still a long way from meeting the original specification for 4G, which was to implement 100 Mbps data speeds for a moving user in a car and 1 Gbps for a stationary user. Even the planned 5G isn’t going to do that.

Voice Over LTE

4g_mastA few people have been lucky enough to try Voice over LTE (VoLTE) on their cellphones. This is a new application that carries voice calls over the 4G data bandwidth instead of as a separate voice channel as is used for traditional cellular calls.

I say they are lucky, because the quality of VoLTE is much better than the quality of normal cellular calls. This is due to the call being able to handle a wider range of voice frequencies (normal phone calls have always chopped off both lower and higher frequencies, which is why people don’t sound the same on the phone as they do in person). VoLTE is supposed to be close in quality to High Definition voice (HD) which is currently being provided by some landline providers.

VoLTE calls are more akin to a call made on Skype with a quality microphone. If you’ve ever talked to somebody on Skype who was in a boardroom or somewhere with great microphones you will know what I am talking about. You can hear somebody with as rich of a voice sound as talking to them in person. When Skype is not so good it’s mostly due to the crappy microphones in PCs and laptops and not due to the technology.

There are still some significant drawbacks to VoLTE that the industry is working out. Roaming is the biggest issue. Currently, if you are talking on VoLTE and move out of the range of 4G the call will drop. The calls are not downward compatible to 3G or 2G data connections. There is also compatibility issues between carriers since there are still no standards, so you might have trouble talking to somebody using another cellphone provider. AT&T and Verizon are working to make their two networks compatible, but other carriers have not yet been integrated with anybody else. Finally, VoLTE only makes a difference if both callers are talking on VoLTE.

But the major drawback today is one of availability; all of the US carriers have introduced VoLTE only on a trial basis in a few markets. And even where it’s available, it’s only been introduced for a small number of handsets by each carrier. You are more likely going to get to try this first if you use an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy.

Early testers of the technology have made some interesting observations about it. Certainly being able to hear the other party better is a huge benefit. The calls also connect much faster since the call is not making its way through the normal telephone network. One of the most interesting observations is that sometimes you can make VoLTE calls when there isn’t normal cell phone coverage. This is due to the fact that some of the spectrum used to deliver 4G has a larger footprint than the spectrum used to make voice calls.

There are a number of benefits to the carriers of the technology in that it relieves pressure from the spectrum used for voice-only. We’re all familiar with trying to make a call in a stadium or on a freeway at rush hour and not being able to get a signal. But as long as you can get a 4G data connection, even a slow one, you will probably be able to make VoLTE calls.

Calling with the technology is also going to save on cellphone battery life. Today your cellphone spends a lot of energy changing between different frequencies to handle voice and data, or between different types of data.

The technology also supports video calls, which means that it will be easier to have video calls on all phones similar to the  the FaceTime app that comes with iPhones.

Probably the biggest issue with the technology will be how the carriers price it. Callers with small data caps are going to be nervous using VoLTE if it counts against their data plans.

The network owners are working out standards and technologies. Currently, a VoLTE call must be routed back to the switch of the cellular provider before a call can be routed, which is an inelegant network solution. But the industry is working towards a standard called RAVEL (Roaming Architecture for Voice over LTE with Local Breakout) that is going to allow calls to be routed locally when appropriate.

One has to think that eventually this is going to become the voice standard and that the carriers will do away with using a separate frequency for voice. That would allow them to make their networks into 100% data networks and eventually do away with the idea of selling minutes.

There were some field trials of the technology in 2014 and we will be seeing more implementation during 2015. But don’t expect this to be widely available in major markets until 2016 and obviously later in markets that still use 3G.

The History of Cellphones

IBM-SimonThis is another blog that looks at the history of the industry and that today I look at the history of the cellphone. Cellphones are arguably the most successful product in the history of our industry, but young people are often surprised to find out that the industry and technology are still relatively very new.

Prior to 1973 and stretching back into the 1920s there was some version of radio phones that were mostly used by businesses with vehicle fleets. These services were generally of somewhat poor quality and also limited either by the number of simultaneous users (only 3 at a time, per city in the early 50’s) or by geography (you couldn’t leave the range of the tower you were connected to).

But several breakthroughs enabled the cellphone technology we know today. First, in the late 1960’s Philip T. Porter and a team of engineers at Bell Labs proposed the system of modern directional cell phone towers that we still have in place today. In 1970 Amos E. Joel of Bell Labs invented the ‘three-sided trunk circuit’ that is the basis for cellular roaming, allowing a call to be handed from one cell tower to another.

The big breakthrough came in 1973 when Martin Cooper of Motorola and researchers at Bell Labs came up with the first hand-held cellphone. The first phone weighted two and a half pounds and was nine inches long. The first phone could hold enough charge for 30 minutes of talking and took ten hours to recharge. But the idea of having a handheld portable phone took hold and several companies began developing a wireless product. Interestingly, none of the prognosticators at the time thought that the technology had much of a future. They predicted future customers in the tens of thousands and not in the billions that we see today.

The first commercial use of the new cellular technologies was introduced in Tokyo in 1979, Scandinavia in 1981 and in the US in 1983. The technology was analog and referred to as Advanced Mobile Phone System (AMPS). It had a number of flaws by modern standards in that it was susceptible to eavesdropping by use of a scanner and it was easy to introduce unauthorized phones onto the network. I can recall occasionally seeing somebody talking on one of these mobile phones in the 80s, but there were relatively rare. But the phones got smaller and batteries improved and the first flip phone was introduced in 1989.

The first system that was more like what we have today was also introduced in the US by DynaTAC using 1G technology. Early 1G was an analog service and was made into a digital offering in 1990. In the early 1990s the second generation network was introduced using 2G. There were two competing technologies at the time (and still are today) that differed by the underlying standards – the GSM standard from Europe and the US-developed CDMA standard. The first GSM network was introduced in Finland in 1991 and hit the US in 1993.

Also introduced in 1993 was the IBM Simon phone that could be called the first smartphone. It has features like a pager, fax machine and PDA merged with a cellphone. It included advanced features for the time including things like a stylus touch screen, address book, calendar, calculator, notepad and email. About this same time was the introduction of texting. The first text message was sent in England in December 1992 followed by Finland in 1993. Texting was everywhere by the mid-1990s.

The demand for accessing the web from a cellphone drove the creation of 3G. This changed the phone from circuit switching to packet switching allowing the introduction of a data connection. The first 3G network was introduced in Japan in 2001, Korea in 2002 and in the rest of the world starting in 2003. By the end of 2007 there were 295 million customers using a 3G network which represented 9% of worldwide cell phone subscribers. Apple released its first iPhone in 2007 that used the 3G technology. That phone was the first ‘modern’ smartphone and today smartphone sales dominate the worldwide market. Finally, around 2009 saw the introduction of the first 4G networks, This increased theoretical data speeds by a factor of 10. There were two different commercial standards for 4G data – WiMAX and LTE. Many of these networks in the US have just been completed for most urban and suburban customers.

So it’s easy for a kid to think we have always had cellphones. But the first iPhone was only seven years ago and the flip-phone was the predominant phone for more than a decade before that. Before the flip phone there were very few cellphones users compared to today. This is an industry that has grown entirely during my career in the industry and it’s still hard sometimes to believe how well it has done. Now, if I had just bought that Apple stock . . .