The Speed of Thought

Verizon has created a 1-hour documentary on the potential for 5G called the Speed of Thought. It’s available on Amazon Prime, on Comcast’s Peacock, as well as on Verizon FiOS on demand. Here is the trailer for the film.

It’s an interesting video that looks a decade into the future from the eyes of 5G developers. The main thrust of the video is that the future of 5G is going to offer a lot more than just faster data speeds for cellphones. The documentary looks at some specific examples of how 5G might interface with other technologies in the future to provide solutions that are not needed today.

The documentary looks at the potential for marrying 5G and augmented reality for firefighters to better let them navigate inside buildings during fire to find and save people. This will require having building plans on file for the fire department that could then be used by firefighters to navigate during the near zero visibility during a fire. I have to admit that this is a pretty cool application that would save lives if it can ever be made to work. The application requires fast wireless broadband in order to communicate a 3D image of the inside of a building in real-time.

The documentary also explores using 5G to assist in emergency medicine in remote places. In Western North Carolina where I live this is a real issue in that residents of many western counties live hours away from a hospital that could save lives for heart attacks, strokes, and accidents. The example used in the film is the use of a robot that assists with a heart procedure in San Francisco, but controlled from Boston. I have a hard time thinking that’ll we’ll ever trust broadband-enabled surgery in major hospitals since an unexpected broadband outage – something that happens far too often – means a loss of life. But the idea of being able to administer to remote heart attack and stroke victims has major potential as a lifesaver.

There is also a segment where students are taught about the civil rights movement in an interactive environment using augmented reality. I have to think this technology will be introduced first in schools which largely have been connected to gigabit fiber in most of the country. However, the idea of tying augmented reality to places like a battlefield or an art museum sounds appealing. It’s hard like immersive learning – actually seeing and participating in events – would be a much more effective way to learn than reading books.

Finally, there is a segment on a test program in Sacramento that uses 5G to provide instant feedback on traffic conditions to drivers, pedestrians, and bicycle riders. This is obviously the first generation of using 5G to create smarter or self-driving vehicles while also benefitting pedestrians and others who enter traffic lanes. Verizon has been talking about using 5G for smart cars since the earliest days of talking about 5G. There is still a long way to go, and even when this gets here it’s likely to appear in places like Sacramento and not in rural America.

The documentary is well done and ought to be interesting to anybody in the industry. But it is still an advertising piece intended to convince people that 5G is a great thing. What I don’t see in all of these applications is a giant new revenue stream for Verizon. Using augmented reality for education is likely to evolve and use landline broadband long before it’s made mobile. Applications like the one that makes life easier for firefighters are intriguing, but it’s hard to envision that as a mover and shaker of Verizon’s bottom line. I think the one that Verizon is hoping for is smart vehicles and traffic control. The company hopes that every car of the future comes with a 5G subscription. Verizon also hopes that people in the future will wear augmented reality glasses in daily life. I really like the imagery and stories told in the documentary, but I remain leery about the predictions.

You Can’t Force Innovation

The new video service Quibi failed after only 7 months of operation and after having received $2 billion in backing from big industry players. The concept was to offer short 5 to 7-minute video serials that would get viewers engaged in a story from day-to-day and week-to-week. The failure seems to be due to nobody being interested in the format. Younger viewers aren’t interested in scripted Hollywood content and instead watch content created by their peers. Older people have now been trained to binge-watch. It turns out there no audience for the concept of short cliff-hanger videos.

The Quibi failure reminded me that you can’t force innovations onto the public. We live in a society where everything new is hyped beyond belief. New technologies and innovations are not just seen as good, but in the hype-world are seen as game changers that will transform society.  A few innovations live up to the hype, such as the smartphone. But many other highly-hyped innovations have been a bust.

Consider bitcoin. This was a new form of currency that was going to replace government-backed currency. But the public never bought into the concept for one big fundamental reason – there is nothing broken about our current form of money. We deposit our money in banks, and it sits there safely until we’re ready to use it. For all of the endless hype about how bitcoin would change the world, I never heard a good argument about why bitcoin is better than our current banking system – except maybe for criminals and dictators that want to hide wealth.

Another big bust was Google Glass. People were not ready to engage with somebody in public who could film them and replay a casual conversation later or post it on social media. People were even more creeped out by the stalker aspect of men using facial recognition to identify and stalk women. To give credit to Google, the folks there never envisioned this as a technology for everybody, but the Internet hype machine played up the idea beyond belief. The public reaction to the technology was a resounding no.

Google was involved in another project that hit a brick wall. Sidewalk Lab, a division of Alphabet envisioned a new smart city being created on the lakefront in Toronto. To tech folks, this sounded great. The city would be completely green and self-contained. Robots would take care of everything like emptying trashcans when they are full, to setting up picnics in the park and cleaning up afterwards. Traffic was all underground and an army of robots and drones would deliver everything people wanted to their doorstep. But before this even got off the drawing board, the people of Toronto rejected the idea as too big-brotherish. The same computer systems that catered to resident demands would also watch people at all times and record and categorize everything they do. In the end, privacy won out over technology.

Some technologies are hyped but never materialize. Self-driving cars have been touted as a transformational technology for over a decade. But in the last few years, the engineers working on the technology acknowledge that a fully self-sufficient self-driving car is still many years away. But this doesn’t stop the hype and there are still articles about the promise of self-driving cars in the press every month.

Nothing has been hyped more in my lifetime than 5G. In the course of recently watching a single football game, I must have seen almost a dozen 5G commercials. Now that 5G phones are hitting the market, the new technology is likely going to soon be perceived by the public as a bust. The technology is being painted as something amazing and new, but recent tests show that 5G is no faster than 4G in 21 of 23 cities. 5G will eventually be faster and better, but will today’s hype make it hard for the cell companies to explain when 5G is actually here?

I could continue to list examples. For example, if I had believed the hype, I’d now live in a fully-automated home where I could talk to my home and have it cater to my every whim. I’d have unlimited power from a cheap neighborhood fusion power plant that produces unlimited and clean power fueled by water. I’d be able to avoid a commute by using my flying car. There is much to like in the hype-world, but sadly it’s not coming any time soon.

5G in China

There is an interesting recent article in the English version of a South Korean newspaper, the ChosunILBO, that talks about 5G in China. According to the article, the Chinese 5G rollout is an expensive bust.

There are a number of interesting facts disclosed about the Chinese 5G roll-out. First, it’s clear that the roll-out is using millimeter wave spectrum. The article says that the 5G towers in the Chinese networks are being installed about 200 meters apart (600 feet) since the signal from each transmitter travels between 100 and 300 meters. That’s consistent with millimeter wave hot spots being deployed in downtown cities by Verizon.

It takes a huge number of millimeter wave cell sites to cover a city and the article says that by the end of June 2020 that the Chinese had installed 410,000 cell sites. The article estimates that to get the same coverage as today’s 4G that the network would eventually need over 10 million cell sites. The article quotes Xiang Ligang, the director-general of the Information Consumption Alliance, a Chinese telecom industry association, who said the plans are to build one million new cell sites in each of the next three years.

The 5G coverage isn’t seeing wide acceptance. The article cites a recent Chinese survey where over 73% of the public says there is no need to buy 5G phones. This matched the findings from another survey that also said the public saw no need for 5G.

One of the more interesting things cited in the article is that the 5G cell sites use a lot of energy and that starting in August, China Unicom has taken to shutting the cell sites down from 9 PM until 9 AM daily to save on electricity costs. They say each cell site is using triple the power of a 4G cell site, and there are a lot of sites to power. The new 5G specifications include a provision to significantly reduce power consumption for 5G cell sites, but in the early days of deployment, it looks like this has gone in the wrong direction.

The article concludes that the Chinese 5G experiment might end up as an economic bust. What’s interesting about this article is that a lot of the same things can be said about 5G in South Korea. It’s been reported that South Korea has the biggest percentage penetration of 5G handsets, but that the public has largely been panning the service.

None of this is surprising. The 5G deployment using millimeter wave spectrum is an outdoor technology and can only be brought indoors by installing numerous 5G transmitters inside a building since the spectrum won’t pass through walls. There is no doubt that the millimeter wave signals are fast, but as has been demonstrated here, the reception of signal is squirrely. Apparently, bandwidth comes and goes by a simple twist of the hand and the user’s body can block the millimeter wave signals. Add that to the inability to continue with a connection when walking into a building or around the corner of a building, and the millimeter wave product doesn’t sound particularly user friendly.

The outdoor product possibly makes sense in places where people stay and work outside, such as public markets. But it’s not an inviting technology for people who are only outside to go between buildings or to commute.

There are no indications that Verizon intends to deploy the product widely in the US, or at least not in the same manner that would cover a city in cell sites every 600 feet.

There has been a huge amount of hype in this country about being in a race with the Chinese over the deployment of 5G. But after seeing articles like this, perhaps our best strategy is to lay back and wait until 5G equipment gets cheaper and until the new 5G cell sites are made energy efficient. For now, it doesn’t sound like a race we want to win.

What’s the Best Way to Help Precision Agriculture?

The FCC is going to take a fresh look at the $9 billion 5G fund this month and it sounds like the grant program will get delayed again while the FCC figures out where to deploy the money. The fund idea has been roiled in controversy since the beginning when it became clear that the big cellular companies were providing false data about existing cellular coverage.

Buried inside this fund is $1 billion in grants intended to help precision farming. Precision farming needs bandwidth, and apparently, the FCC has decided that the bandwidth should be cellular. I was frankly surprised to see such a specific earmark. The current FCC and administration have clearly climbed on the 5G bandwagon, but it seems premature to me to assume that cellular will be the winning technology for precision agriculture.

This funding means that the cellular companies will get a free, or highly subsidized network and will then be able to bill farmers for providing the bandwidth needed for smart tractors and for the millions of field sensors that the industry predicts will be deployed to monitor crops and livestock.

This all sounds great and shows that the government is working to help solve one of our biggest broadband needs. But it also means that the FCC hopes to hand the agribusiness revenue stream to cellular companies. This feels to me like another victory for the cellular lobbyists – their companies get free government handouts that will lead to lucrative long-term monopoly revenue streams.

If the FCC was doing its job right, we’d be seeing a far different approach. There are multiple wireless technologies that can be leveraged for smart agriculture.

  • Cellular technology is an option, but it’s not necessarily the best technology to cover big swaths of farmland. The coverage area around a cell tower is only a few miles and it requires a huge number of rural cell sites to provide universal cellular broadband coverage in farming areas.
  • Another option is LoRaWAN, a technology that is perfect for providing small bandwidth to huge numbers of sensors over a large area. This technology was discussed in a recent blog talking about the deployment of a LoRaWAN blimp in Indiana.
  • By default, early farm sensors are using WiFi, which is something farms can implement locally, at least in barns and close to farm buildings.

All these technologies require broadband backhaul, and this could be provided by fiber or satellites. If the 5G grants and the current RDOF grants are spent wisely there will be fiber built deeply into farming counties. Satellite broadband could fill in for the most remote farms.

Ideally, the FCC would be considering the above technologies and any others that could help agribusiness. Agriculture is our largest industry and it seems callous to stuff money to solve the problem inside an FCC grant program that might not even be awarded for several years and that then will allow for six more years to build the networks – that would push solutions out for at least a decade into the future.

Instead, the FCC should be establishing a smart farming grant program to see what could be done now for this vital sector of our economy. The FCC should be funding experimental test trials to understand the pros and cons of using cellular, WiFi, satellite, or LoRaWAN bandwidth to talk to farm devices. The results of such trials would then be used to fund a farming broadband grant program that would deploy farm broadband in an expeditious manner – a lot sooner than a decade from now.

The FCC should not be automatically awarding money to cellular companies to control the budding smart farming industry. If we took the time to look at this scientifically, we’d find out which technology is the most suitable and sustainable. For example, one of the driving factors in creating smart farming is going to be the power needs for sensors using the different wireless technologies. It may turn out that the best solution is cellular – but we don’t know that. But that’s not going to stop the FCC from marching forward with $1 billion in grants without ever having looked hard at the issue. This sounds like just another giveaway to the big carriers to me.

Apple Buys into 5G

Apple is coming out with a full range of new 5G iPhones. The phones have been designed to use the full range of new frequencies that the various cellular companies are touting as 5G, up to and including the millimeter wave spectrum offered in center cities by Verizon. In addition to 5G, the phones have new features like a better camera, better ease at using wireless charging, and a lidar scanner. The last change is the most revolutionary since lidar allows apps on the phone to better see and react to the surrounding environment.

But Apple is going all-in on the 5G concept. It’s a natural thing to do since cellular carriers have been talking non-stop about 5G for the last few years. However, by heavily advertising the new phones as 5G capable, Apple is possibly setting themselves up to be the brunt of consumer dissatisfaction when the public realizes that what’s being sold as 5G is just a repackaged version of 4G. The new features from an upgrade in cellular specifications will get rolled out over a decade, like we saw with the transition from 4G to 5G. In terms of the improvements of these new phones, were probably now at 4.1G, which is a far cry from what 5G will be like in ten years.

What I find most disturbing about the whole 5G phenomenon is that the cellular companies have essentially sold the public on the advantages of faster cellular speeds without anybody ever asking the big question of why cellphones need faster speed. Cellphones are, by definition, a single user device. The biggest data application that most people ever do on a cellphone is to watch video. If  4G phone is sufficient to watch video, then what’s the advantage up spending a lot of money to upgrade to 5G? Home broadband needs fast broadband to allow multiple people to use the broadband at the same time, but that isn’t true for a cellphone.

People do get frustrated with smartphones that get poor coverage inside big building, in elevators, in the inevitable cellular dead zones in every town, or rural areas too far away from cell towers. 5G phones won’t fix any of these problems because poor cellular coverage happens in areas that naturally block or can’t receive wireless signals. No technology can make up for lack of wireless signal.

The big new 5G feature in the iPhones is the ability to use all of the different frequencies that the cellular companies are now transmitting. However, these frequencies aren’t additive – if somebody grabs a new ‘5G’ frequency, the bandwidth on that frequency doesn’t add to what they were receiving on 4G. Instead, the user gets whatever frequency is available on the new spectrum channel. In many cases, the new 5G frequencies are lower than traditional cellular frequencies, and so data speeds are going to be a little slower.

The cellular companies are hoping that Apple is successful. The traditional frequencies used for 4G have been getting crowded, particularly in urban areas. Cellular data traffic has been growing at the torrid pace of 24% per year, and the traditional cellular network using big towers is getting overwhelmed.

Cellular companies have been trying to offload the 4G traffic volumes from the traditional cellular networks by opening up thousands of small cell sites. But their biggest hope for relieving 4G was to open up new bands of spectrum – which they have done. Every data connection made on a new frequency band is one that isn’t going to clog up the old and overfull cellular network. Introducing new bands of frequency doesn’t do the cellular networks any good unless people start using the new frequency bands – and that’s where the iPhone is a godsend to cellular companies. Huge volumes of data will finally migrate to the newly opened frequency bands as these new iPhones hit the market.

Unfortunately, users will likely not see any advantages from the change. Users will be migrating connection to a different frequency band, but it’s still 4G. It will be curious to see who takes the heat when the expensive new phones don’t outperform the old phones – will it be Apple or the cellular carriers?

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.

 

Is the Line Between Wireless and Wireline Blurring?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5G Carriers Hoping for Handouts

The Information Technology Industry Council (ITI) published a recent report that looks at “5G policy Principles and 5G Essentials for Global Policymakers’. For those who don’t know ITI, they are a DC-based lobbying group that represents most of heavy-hitter tech firms, and which works to help shape policy on tax, trade, talent, security, access, and sustainability issues. I don’t think I’ve seen another document that so clearly outlines the hopes of the big US cellular companies.

The paper makes specific policy proposals. In the area of innovation and investment, the paper proposes that the government provide incentives for 5G research and development. It asks governments to support open and interoperable network solutions so that 5G technology works everywhere – unlike with 4G where US cellphones don’t work in Europe. ITI warns that the industry will need a lot more datacenter technicians, cloud administrators, and cybersecurity experts, and asks governments to invest in workforce training. Finally, it asks for the free flow of data across borders.

In the area of 5G deployment, the report recommends freeing up more spectrum for 5G. The report also recommends harmonizing spectrum bands around the world to help make handsets universally usable. There is a recommendation to use targeted government funding to complement private sector investment in 5G. Finally, the report asks for governments to force local siting and licensing reform to speed up 5G deployment.

In the area of 5G security, the paper promotes the idea of supply chain security to ‘consider the geopolitical implications of manufacturing locations’ (keeping out the Chinese). The ITI also suggests that government and industry must share responsibility and collaborate on security.

Finally, in the area of standards, the ITI asks that governments avoid promoting country-specific standards to promote worldwide interoperability – something we failed to do with 4G. The paper suggests that governments should encourage consistent industry engagement in worldwide efforts to create standards.

The paper is titled to suggest that it is a list of policies to be pursued globally. But once I digested all of the recommendations, it’s clear that this is a paper intended to influence U.S. policymakers. Some of the recommendations, such as pushing federal solutions to override local barriers to 5G deployment are strictly U.S. issues. Most of the countries around the planet rely on cellular broadband as the primary source of connectivity, and in most countries, the rules are already slanted in favor of allowing wireless deployment.

If there were any doubts that this piece is sponsored by the big carriers, the paper ends with a summary of the conclusions of a 2018 report from Accenture that was published at the height of the 5G hype. That paper claims that “In the United States alone, 5G is expected to generate up to $275 billion in infrastructure investment, thus creating approximately three million new jobs and boosting GDP by $500 billion annually.’

The current reality of the 5G industry is already vastly different than that 2018 vision. Over the last few years, the big telcos have laid off many tens of thousands of workers and are heading in the exact opposite direction as suggested by the quote. In a recent blog, I noted that the cellular companies are still struggling to define an economic business case for 5G. At least for now, this doesn’t feel like an industry headed for those lofty goals.

The paper goes on to make huge claims for 5G. For instance, the paper claims that 5G has the ultimate capacity to deliver 20 Gbps broadband speeds. That’s such an outlandish claim that there is not much that can be done with it other than an eye-roll.

The paper also touts that 5G will ultimately be able to handle up to 1,000,000 separate connections to devices in a square mile from a single transmitter. If that claim was realistic, I have to wonder why the carriers are bothering to build small cells if a single cell site will have that much capacity. That paper also envisions a world where every device in our lives is connected to a 5G data plan so that we have to pay to connect devices. That ignores the reality that WiFi has already won the connectivity battle and that WiFi will be magnitudes better with the introduction of WiFi 6 and the 6 GHz spectrum band.

This is an industry piece aimed at persuading legislators that 5G is an amazing technology – the paper stops just short of claiming that 5G can leap over tall buildings in a single bound. However, most the paper also paints a picture of an industry that wants big government handouts to achieve the technology goals.  The recommendations in the paper ask for government financial help for training staff and ask for subsidized R&D. The paper also wants government help in eliminating regulation and squashing any local input into the placement of cell sites. It’s hard to understand why an industry that is going to conquer the world and create $500 billion in annual GDP, as this paper suggests, would need so much government help.

Can 5G Compete with Cable Broadband?

One of the recurring themes used to promote 5G is that wireless broadband is going to become a serious competitor to wireline broadband. There are two primary types of broadband competition – competition by price or performance. Cable companies have largely won the broadband battle in cities and suburbs and I’ve been thinking about the competition that cable companies might see from 5G.

Cable broadband is an interesting product. In most cities and suburbs today, the basic broadband product has a download speed between 100 Mbps to 200 Mbps with upload speeds in the range of 10 Mbps to 15 Mbps. The cable companies decided over a decade ago that they were going to stay in front of market demand and have periodically increased speeds, with the most recent speed increases introduced around two years ago. Cable systems can offer speeds up to a gigabit, but the ugly secret that cable companies don’t want to talk about is that it would be incredibly expensive if too many people bought and used gigabit speeds. CCG does market surveys and the primary complaints that customers have about urban cable broadband is inconsistency – networks have periodic slowdowns and outages that customers find frustrating. As much as one third of cable customers also poll as hating the customer service of the larger cable companies.

The biggest weakness of cable broadband is the upload speed. This wasn’t an issue for most homes until the recent pandemic sent students and parents home. Many homes that were satisfied with cable broadband have found that the upload streams are inadequate to allow multiple people in a home to connect to servers and video conferencing services. Cable companies can probably tweak upload speeds upward by 50% more, but that will still feel slow to many homes. Cable companies are faced with an expensive upload to DOCSIS 4.0 to create symmetrical speeds.

There are two products being marketed as 5G. The first is Verizon’s fixed wireless access product. This is not 5G and is best described as fiber-to-the-curb, because it requires a fiber network built close to homes to provide this product. This is a fiber technology that happens to use a wireless drop. As such, it is technologically superior to cable broadband in that speeds can be symmetrical. Verizon says speeds can be as fast as a gigabit, but speeds will vary by customer and will likely slow down during heavy rain or get slower in summer when shrubs and trees are in full leaf. From a price perspective, Verizon is using this product to reduce cellular churn and is pricing it at $50 for a Verizon wireless customer and $70 for everybody else.  The $70 price is not going to push Comcast and Charter to lower prices, but it might force them to hesitate with future rate increases for neighborhoods that are competing with the Verizon product.

The FCC and the industry have implied for years that 5G cellular will be a competitor for landline broadband. I still can’t see many homes accepting 5G cellular as a replacement for landline broadband. I can think of a number of important ways to compare and contrast the two broadband products:

Speed. Forget the millimeter-wave product that cellular companies are touting as delivering cellular speeds over a gigabit. It’s a gimmick product used  to try to promote the idea that 5G is fast. The millimeter-wave technology is only good outdoors, and even then only travels a few hundred feet from a cell site. It delivers gigabit speeds to cellphones – when cellphones aren’t designed to run multiple apps that require fast broadband. The 5G download speeds on regular cellphones should creep up 100 Mbps over the next 5 to 7 years, and would rival the base speeds on cable company networks – but by that time the cable companies are likely to upgrade all of their customers to 250 Mbps. Cellular upload speeds don’t matter, because no family is going to conduct multiple upload sessions over a single cellphone.

Overall Capacity. Cellular networks today carry less than 5% of all US broadband. Even the majority of data passed through cellphones is handed off to landline networks through WiFi. In North America this year, Cisco predicts that in 2020 there will be 77 exabytes per month carried by landline networks compared to 3.4 exabytes carried by cellular networks. By 2022 that will grow to 109 exabytes for landline networks and 6 exabytes for cellular networks – the gap between the two technologies is rapidly widening. There is no scenario where cellular networks can somehow steal away a lot of the traffic carried by landlines. When cellular companies make this claim they are arguing against the realities of physics.

Household Usage. Household usage of broadband has exploded. In the first quarter of 2018, the average US home used 215 gigabytes of data per month. At the end of the recent first quarter of 2020 that had grown to over 400 gigabytes per month. By 2024 the average home might be using more than 700 gigabytes per month.

Data Caps. The above statistics show the absurdity of the claim that cellular will somehow overtake landline broadband. Even the ‘unlimited’ cellular data plans today are capped or heavily throttled after 20 or so gigabytes of data used in a month. Cellular companies are not likely to raise the data caps much because they don’t want heavy data users sucking all of the capacity out of the cellular networks.

Pricing. US cellular data is the most expensive broadband in developed countries. For 5G to compete with landline broadband, the cellular companies would have to kill the paradigm of selling an extra gigabyte of data for $10. 5G can only compete with landline broadband if the cellular carriers can increase wireless network capacity by a factor of ten and are willing to lower prices by more than a factor of ten. The first is not possible due to the limitations of physics and there are no indications that cellular carriers are willing to consider the second.

Starry Back in the News

I’ve written about Starry several times since they first tried to launch in 2016. Their first market launch was a failure and it seems that the technology of beaming broadband to windows in apartment units never worked as planned. Since then the company has regrouped and now is using a business plan of connecting to the roofs of apartment buildings using millimeter wave radio. This is the same business plan pursued by Webpass, which was purchased by Google, although the technology and spectrum are different.

Starry was founded by Chet Kanojia who was also the founder of Aereo – the company that tried to deliver affordable local programming in cities through a wireless connection. Starry originally launched in Boston but has recently added Los Angeles, New York City, Denver, and Washington, D.C.

Starry is still advertising a simple product set – $50 per month for 200 Mbps symmetrical broadband. There’s a $50 install fee and then no add-ons or extra charges on top of the $50 rate. This easily beats the prices of the big cable companies or of Verizon FiOS. Starry is likely filling a competitive void in New York City where Verizon has still failed to connect broadband to thousands of high rises and millions of potential subscribers.

Starry is advertising ease of use along with low prices. Once a building is added to the Starry network they promise to install a customer at a scheduled time rather than providing a 4-6 hour window like their landline competition. Their web site doesn’t discuss the technology used to reach buildings, but it says they use existing building wiring. G.Fast is likely being used to deliver the technology over telephone wiring inside the building since there is no easy way to share coaxial cable if a customer is still buying cable TV. That would also explain how they can promise fast hook-ups since every unit in a high rise would typically already have telephone wiring.

Starry may be planning for faster speeds in the future since they were one of the largest buyers of spectrum in the 2019 auction for 24 GHz spectrum. Starry still advertises that they use phased-array antennas. This technology allows a single antenna radiator to transmit at different phases of the same frequency. This is one of the easiest ways to ‘steer’ the direction of the signal and Starry uses this technology to accomplish beamforming. What that means in a busy urban environment is that Starry can deliver more bandwidth to a rooftop than a traditional transmitter antenna.

Interestingly, the company doesn’t claim to be delivering 5G, as is every other wireless provider. This should provide a good example, that millimeter wave spectrum does not automatically equate to 5G. Starry says they are still using the simpler and cheaper 802.11 WiFi standards within the broadband path.

MoffettNathanson recently said they were bullish on the Starry model. Even though the company currently has a relatively small number if customers, their goal of chasing 30% of the urban high-rise market seems credible to the analysts. Starry’s technology can deliver broadband all across an urban downtown from one or two big tower transmitters. That contrasts with Verizon’s 5G technology that delivers fast bandwidth from small cells that must be within 1,000 feet of a home. MoffettNathanson did caution that Starry’s business plan is likely not replicable in the suburbs or smaller towns – but there are a lot of potential customers sitting in high rises in the urban centers of the country.

This kind of competition adds a lot of pressure on other ISPs wanting to serve large apartment buildings in downtown areas. Verizon found the gaining entry to buildings was their key stumbling block in gaining access to buildings in Manhattan, which resulted in the company badly violating their agreement with the City to bring FiOS to everybody. A wireless company like Starry can leap over the long list of impediments that make it hard to bring wires into urban high rises – and low prices for good broadband ought to be an interesting competitive alternative for a lot of people.