5G Claims for Rural America

There are a few hot-button topics that are the current favorite talking points at the FCC. T-Mobile and Sprint are pressing both the 5G and the rural broadband buttons with their merger request. The companies are claiming that if they are allowed to merge that they can cover 96% of America with a ‘deep, broad, and nationwide’ 5G network.

There are multiple technologies being referred to as 5G – wireless broadband loops and 5G cellular – and their claim doesn’t hold water for either application. In making the claim the companies want regulators to think that they are talking about wireless 5G loop like the technology that Verizon recently test-drove in Sacramento. That technology is delivering 300 Mbps broadband to those living close to the transmitters located on poles. The carriers are smart and know this is the kind of claim that will perk up the ears of regulators and politicians. A ubiquitous 300 Mbps rural broadband product would solve the rural digital divide.

T-Mobile and Sprint are not talking about 5G wireless loops. That technology requires two things to have any chance of success – sufficient neighborhood housing density and fiber backhaul. Rural areas with poor broadband generally lack fiber infrastructure built close to neighborhoods, so a 5G provider would have to build the needed fiber. I can’t imagine why anybody that builds fiber close to a neighborhood would then choose a squirrely wireless link that delivers less than a gigabit of speed instead of a direct fiber connection that can deliver 10 Gbps using today’s readily-available technology.

The other missing element in rural America is customer density. I read an article that says that each Verizon 5G wireless loop transmitter in Sacramento can see at least 20 potential customers. There are a number of industry analysts who think that even that is a hard business case to justify, so how can wireless loops ever work in rural American where a given transmitter will likely see only a few homes? I can foresee the 5G loop technology perhaps being used to deliver broadband to small rural subdivisions or small towns where the wireless link might be cheaper than stringing fiber. However, most of rural America is characterized by low density and homes that are far apart.

What T-Mobile and Sprint are really talking about is 5G rural cellular service. Sprint brings a unique asset to the merger – they are the only US cellular carrier using nationwide spectrum in the 850 MHz and the 2.5 GHz bands. T-Mobile is the only carrier currently using 600 MHz spectrum. The combined companies would have by far the biggest inventory of spectrum – giving them a big advantage in urban America.

But is there an advantage this spectrum can bring to rural broadband? The short answer is no. I say that because I don’t see 5G cellular being that important in rural America? There are several reasons why the T-Mobile and Sprint announcement makes little sense.

The biggest issue is that there is not going to be fully-functional 5G cell sites anywhere in the country for years. It’s likely to take most of the coming decade until we see cell sites that comply with all 13 of the major improvement goals listed in the 5G specifications. There will be a natural progression from 4G to 5G as the carriers implement upgrades over time – the same upgrade path we just saw with 4G, where the first fully-compliant 4G cell sites were finally implemented in late 2017.

The bigger question is if most rural cell sites need 5G. The new technology brings several major improvements to cellular. First will be the ability of one cell site to make up to 100,000 simultaneous connections to devices, up from several thousand connections today. This improvement will be mostly accomplished using frequency slicing. This allows a cell site to tailor the size of the broadband connection to each customer’s demand. For example, a connection to an IoT device might be set at a tiny fraction of a full cellular channel, thus freeing up the rest of that channel to serve other customers. Many rural cell sites won’t need this extra capacity. A rural cell site that serves a few hundred people at a time will continue to function well with 4G and won’t need the extra capacity.

5G also can be used to increase the speed of cellular broadband, with the goal in the standard to bring speeds to as fast as 100 Mbps. That is also unlikely to happen to any great degree in rural America. Speeds of 100 Mbps will be accomplished in urban areas by having multiple cell sites connect to a single cellphone. That will require densely packed small cell sites, which is something we are already starting to see in the busy parts of downtowns. It’s incredibly unlikely that the cellular companies are going to introduce small cell sites through rural America just to boost handset broadband speeds. Speeds are not likely to be much faster than 4G when a customer can see only a single tower.

The T-Mobile and Sprint claim is pure bosh. These companies are not going to be investing in fiber to bring 5G wireless loops to rural America. While a combined company will have more spectrum than the other carriers there is no immediate advantage for using 5G for rural cellular coverage . The T-Mobile and Sprint announcements are just pushing the 5G and the rural broadband hot-buttons because the topics resonate well with politicians who don’t understand the technology.