Be Wary of 5G Hardware

We’ve now entered the period of 5G competition where the wireless carriers are trying to outdo each other in announcing 5G rollouts. If you believe the announcements, you’d think 5G is soon going to be everywhere. Device manufacturers are joining the fray and are advertising devices that can be used with the early carrier 5G products. Buyers beware – because most of what the cellular companies and the manufacturers are hyping as 5G is not yet 5G. Any first generation hardware you buy today will become quickly obsolete as future 5G upgrades are introduced.

5G Cellular. Cellular carriers are introducing two new spectrum bands – CBRS spectrum and millimeter wave spectrum – as 5G. The actual use of these spectrums is not yet technically 5G because the carriers aren’t yet using much of the 5G specifications. These two specific spectrum bands come with another warning in that they are only being used to produce faster outdoor broadband. Customers who live in places where they can receive the new frequencies, and who compute outdoors might see value in paying extra for the devices and the 5G data plans. Most people are not going to find any value in what these plans offer and should not get sucked into paying for something they can’t get or won’t use.

Cellphone manufacturers are already starting to build the CBRS spectrum into high-end phones. By next year there should be a 5G version of every major cellphone – at a premium price. Within a few years this will be built into every phone, but for now, expect to pay extra.

The question that users need to ask is if faster cellphone data is worth the extra hardware cost and worth the extra monthly fee that will be charged for 5G browsing. I’ve thought about the cellphone functions that would be improved with faster broadband and the only one I can come up with is faster downloads of movies or software. Faster broadband is not going to make web browsing any faster on a cellphone. Cellphones have been optimized for graphics, which is why you can scroll easily through a Google map or can flip easily between videos on social media. The trade-off for faster graphics is that cellphones aren’t good at other things. Cellphones crawl when trying to process non-cellular websites or when trying to handle spreadsheets. Faster broadband is not going to make these functions any faster, because the slowness comes from the intrinsic design of the cellphone operating software and can’t be improved with faster broadband.

I also think customers are going to face a huge challenge in getting a straight answer about when CBRS spectrum or millimeter wave spectrum will be available in their local neighborhood. The carriers are in full 5G marketing mode and are declaring whole metropolitan areas to have 5G even if that only means new spectrum is in a few neighborhoods.

Finally, beware that both of these spectrums only work outdoors. And that means on foot, not in cars. Millimeter wave spectrum is likely to always be a gimmick. Folks testing the spectrum today report that they can lose the connection simply by rotating their phone slightly or by putting their body in the path from the transmitter. CBRS spectrum will be much more well-behaved.

Laptops.  Lenovo has already announced a 5G-capable laptop coming in 2020 and others will surely jump on the bandwagon soon. The big issue with laptops is also an issue with cellphones. It might be reasonable in an area with good CBRS spectrum coverage to get a 100 Mbps or faster cellular connection. This is going to tempt a user to use a laptopas if it was on a home broadband connection. However, this is still going to be cellular data supplied on a cellular data plan. Unless the carriers decide to lift data caps, a customer using a CBRS spectrum laptop might find themselves exhausting their monthly data cap in a day or two. It’s also worth repeating that these are outdoor spectrums, and so only students or others who regularly use computers outdoors a lot are going to find this spectrum potentially useful.

5G Hotspots. A 5G hotspot is one that broadcasts bandwidth in millimeter wave spectrum. Sprint is already marketing such a hot spot. This takes us back to the early days of WiFi when we needed a dongle to use WiFi since the spectrum wasn’t built into desktops or laptops. A 5G hotspot will have that same restriction. One of the primary reasons to consider a millimeer wave hotspot is security. It will be much harder to hack a millimter wave connection than a WiFi connection. But don’t select the millimeter wave hot spot for speed because a millimeter wave connection won’t be any faster than the WiFi 6 routers just hitting the market.

In future years, 5G hotspots might make sense as millimeter wave spectrum is built into more devices. One of the biggest advantages of indoor millimeter wave spectrum is to avoid some of the interference issues inherent in WiFi. I picture the ideal future indoor network to be millimeter wave spectrum used to provide bandwidth to devices like computers and TVs while WiFi 6 is used for everything else. There is likely to be an interesting battle coming in a few years between millimeter wave and WiFi 6 routers. WiFi already has a huge advantage in that battle since the WiFi technology will be included in a lot more devices. For now there won’t be many easy ways to use a 5G millimeter wave hotspot.

The Myth of 5G and Driverless Cars

A colleague sent me an article that had been published earlier this year in MachineDesign magazine that predicts that driverless cars can’t be realized until we have a ubiquitous 5G network. When looking for the original article on the web I noticed numerous similar articles like this one in Forbes that have the same opinion.

These articles and other similar articles predict that high-bandwidth, low-latency 5G networks are only a few years away. I’m not quite sure who these folks think will invest the $100 billion or more that would likely be required to build such a wireless network along all of the roads in the country. None of the cellular carriers have such grandiose plans, and if they did their stockholders would likely replace a management team that suggested such an investment.

It’s easy to understand how this myth got started. When 5G was first discussed, the cellular companies listed self-driving cars as one of the reasons the government should support 5G. However, over time they’ve all dropped this application from their 5G message and it’s no longer a cellular company talking point.

The idea that 5G is needed for self-driving cars is bolstered by the belief that the computing power of a data center is needed to process the massive amounts of data generated by a self-driving car. That very well may be true, and the current versions of self-driving cars are essentially data centers on wheels that contain several fast computers.

The belief that 5G will enable self-driving cars also comes from the promise of low latency, near to that of a direct fiber connection. The folks that wrote these articles envision a massive 2-way data transfer happening constantly with 5G for every self-driving car. I can’t imagine they have ever talked to a network engineer about the challenge of creating 2-way wireless gigabit connections with hundreds of moving cars simultaneously on a freeway at rush hour. It’s hard to envision the small cell site and fiber infrastructure needed to handle that without hiccups. I also don’t know if the authors have recently driven down many rural reads recently to remind themselves of the huge challenge of implementing rural gigabit 5G.

The talk of using wireless for vehicles also ignores some fundamental issues. Wireless technologies are wonky in the real world. Radio waves do odd things in the wild and every wireless network has dead zones and places where the system mysteriously won’t work the way it’s supposed to. Worse, the dead spots and odd spots move around with changes in temperature, humidity, and precipitation.

Network engineers also would advise that for a critical task like driving at high speeds that every vehicle should have a redundant back-up connection, meaning a second wireless connection in case the first one has a problem. Anybody that puts critical tasks on a fiber network invests in such redundancy. Hospitals that use broadband as part of a surgical procedure or a factory that does precision manufacturing will have a second fiber connection to be safe. It’s hard to imagine a redundant connection for a moving car since the only place it can come from is the nearest cell sites that provide the primary connection.

I don’t know how other feel about this, but I’m not about to trust my life to a self-driving car that needs a connection to an external data center to be safe. I know too much about how broadband networks function to believe that 5G networks will somehow always make perfect connections when other fiber networks don’t.

One of the first things that came to my mind when I read these articles was to wonder what happens when there is a fiber outage on the network supporting the 5G cell sites. Do all of the self-driving cars just stop and wait for a broadband signal? I picture a city during an event like the 19-hour CenturyLink fiber outage a year ago and wonder if we are so stupid as to make our transportation systems reliant on external computing and external networks. I sure hope that we are not that dumb.

Court Chips Away at 5G Deployment Rules

The US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled last week that the FCC had gone too far when it ruled that 5G cell site placement could bypass environmental and historic preservation review. The specific ruling looked at whether the FCC has the authority to bypass these kinds of reviews for sites of religious and cultural importance to federally recognized Indian Tribes. But the ruling has a far larger significance and applies to these kinds of reviews everywhere.

This type of court ruling seemed inevitable because of the brashness of the original FCC order. That order declared that the deployment of 5G is so important that all of the rules in the country applying to the deployment of new infrastructure don’t apply. For courts to buy that argument that must be convinced that 5G deployment is so important that it is indeed a national emergency.

I think everybody who understands the benefits of 5G understands that it is an important new technology – one that will create huge benefits for the country. But it’s hard to make an argument that 5G deployment is an emergency.

The biggest benefits of 5G are only going to manifest with the introduction of frequency slicing into the cellular network, and that looks to be 3 – 4 years away. The deployments that the cellular carriers are labeling as 5G today mostly marketing gimmicks and custoemrs are not yet seeing any of the real benefits from 5G.

I blame the original FCC 5G order on a poorly chosen strategy by the cellular carriers, abetted by the FCC. We are facing a cellular emergency in the country, but it’s a crisis of 4G and not 5G. Our existing 4G network is in serious trouble and it seems that the cellular carriers don’t want to admit it. Cellular data networks are swamped because customer data usage is not doubling every two years. I have seen big problems in my local AT&T network. There have been many days when it’s hard to make or hold a call – something that never happened before last year.

The explosive growth of cellular traffic is partially the fault of the cellular carriers – it comes as a result of ‘unlimited’ data plans that encourage people to watch video and use cellphone data. It wasn’t that long ago when it cost a lot to buy a data plan that exceeded 1 or 2 gigabytes of usage per month. The average customer with an unlimited plan now uses 6 GB per month, and that number is growing rapidly.

The other cause of the increased demand on cellular networks comes from the success of the industry convincing in convincing everybody to use a smartphone. A recent Pew poll showed that 95% of teens and young adults now have a smartphone. The sheer number of customers is swamping the networks.

There is a path out of the current data crisis for cellular networks. It’s a 3-prong approach that involves building more cell sites, adding more bands of frequency onto cellphones, and finally layering on the frequency slicing capabilities of 5G.

It takes at 3 – 5 years to introduce a new frequency into the cellular network. That involves upgrading cell sites, but more importantly, it means building the capability into handsets and then getting the new phones into the hands of enough people to make a difference.

With real 5G benefits still a few years off, the only immediate way to relieve pressure on the cellular network is to add small cell sites. Each small cell site grabs local callers and keeps them off the big tall cell towers. All of the hectic small cell site construction we see is not being done for 5G – it’s being done to take the pressure off the 4G network.

The big cellular companies seem unwilling to admit that their networks are hurting and are in danger of overload – the first company brave enough to say that probably loses customers. Instead, the cellular industry elected to push the 5G narrative as the reason for bypassing the normal way that we build infrastructure. In this case, the courts didn’t buy that 5G is an emergency, and the court is right because 5G isn’t even here yet. If the cellular carriers and the FCC would have declared a 4G emergency I think everybody would have gotten it. We all want our cellphones to work.

The courts are still reviewing the appeal of an issue with even more potential dire consequences to the cellular carriers. Probably the most important aspect of the FCC’s 5G ruling is that cities have little say about the placement of small cell sites and also must expedite permitting for new small cell sites. That ruling was challenged by numerous cities and is being reviewed by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. That issue also boils down to the question of whether deploying 5G is an emergency. I wonder if it’s too late for the cellular carriers to fess up and admit that the emergency is really for 4G – even appeal court judges would likely understand that.

Looking Back at Looking Forward

I find it interesting to sometimes look backward a few years to see what predictions were made about the future of the telecom industry. Five years ago I went to an NTCA conference where several speakers made predictions about the industry, particularly as it would impact rural America. It’s interesting to look at what was predicted about today just a few years ago. Some predictions were dead on and others fizzled. Following are some of the more interesting misses.

Broadband Technologies. There were predictions that by 2020 that we’d see upgrades to G.Fast in rural copper networks and to next-generation PON equipment for fiber deployments. Neither of these happened for various reasons. US telcos have never accepted G.Fast, although there is widespread adoption in Europe where copper networks are delivering 300 Mbps speeds to customers. The big telcos in the US are making no investments in rural copper unless the FCC fully funds it. Many smaller telcos have taken advantage of changes in the Universal Service Fund to upgrade from copper to fiber rather than upgrade DSL. Next-generation PON electronics are still waiting for one big ISP to buy enough gear to lower prices.

Widespread 5G. It’s not hard to understand why this would have been believed in 2014 since the big carriers were already in hype mode even then. One prediction was that as many as 60% of cellphones would be 5G by 2020. There were several predictions that 5G was going to enable autonomous vehicles and that building fiber along highways would be routine by 2020. There was a prediction that we’d see small cells everywhere, with deployments every 3,000 feet.

The timing of 5G is far behind those predictions. I see where Cisco recently estimated that only 3% of cellphones worldwide would be 5G enabled by 2022. Most experts today believe that the cellular networks will still predominantly rely on 4G LTE even a decade from today. The idea of building a cellular network for autonomous vehicles died – it was always hard to imagine the revenue stream that would have supported that network. We may still get to a dense small cell network someday, but calling for a small cell every 3,000 feet still sounds incredibly aggressive even decades from now.

IoT and LPWAN. There was a prediction that by 2020 that we’d have deployed low bandwidth networks using 900 MHz spectrum that would connect to huge numbers of outdoor IoT sensors. The prediction was that there is a huge revenue opportunity to charge $1 monthly for each sensor. There are still those calling for these networks today, but it’s still not getting any widespread traction.

Widespread Adoption of Augmented and Virtual Reality. Those technologies were on everybody’s future list in 2014. Oculus Rift was the leader in developing virtual reality and Magic Leap had raised several rounds of funding to develop augmented reality. There is now a sizable gaming deployment of virtual reality, but virtual reality has not yet touched the average person or moved beyond gaming. Magic Leap finally started selling a developer headset at the end of last year.

We Should Be Overrun by Now with Robots and Drones. In 2014 there was a prediction of robots everywhere by 2020. New factories are manned today by robots, but robots are still news when they are used in a public-facing function. A few hotels are trying out a robot concierge. There are a few automated fast food restaurants. There are a few hospitals with robots that transport meals and medicines. Robots deliver take-out food in a few city centers and university towns.

Drones are quietly being used for functions like mapping and inspecting storm damage. Flying small drones is now a popular hobby. Amazon keeps experimenting with drone delivery of packages but it’s still in the trial stage. Commercial use of drones is still in its infancy.

Use of Data. My favorite prediction was that by 2020 we’d have software systems that can deliver data at the right place, at the right time, to the right person, on the right device. This harkens back to the old AT&T promise that someday we’d be able to watch any movie we wanted, the minute we wanted. To some degree that old promise came to pass, although it was implemented by somebody other than AT&T.

Some businesses are meeting parts of this prediction today. These are custom platforms that send trouble tickets to technicians, notify employees to connect a new customer, automate ordering of inventory, etc. However, nothing close to that promise has yet made it into our everyday lives. In fact, except for Candy Crush most of us probably still have the same apps on our smartphones we used in 2014. Many of us are still waiting for the digital assistant we were first promised a decade ago.

Got Some Things Right. It’s easy to pick on predictions that never came to pass and I’ve made plenty of those myself. There was some great prediction in 2014. One presenter said we’d continue to see the explosive growth of residential data usage, that would continue to grow at 24% per year – that’s still a dead-on prediction. There was a prediction that businesses would migrate employees to mobile devices and it is routine today to see employees in all sorts of businesses operating from a tablet. There was a prediction of explosive growth of machine-to-machine data traffic, and today this one of the areas fastest traffic growth.

Cellular Broadband Speeds – 2019

Opensignal recently released their latest report on worldwide cellular data speeds. The company examined over 139 billion cellphone connections in 87 countries in creating this latest report.

South Korea continues to have the fastest cellular coverage in the world with an average download speed of 52.4 Mbps. Norway is second at 48.2 Mbps and Canada third at 42.5 Mbps. The US was far down the list in 30th place with an average download speed of 21.3 Mbps. Our other neighbor Mexico had an average download speed of 14.9 Mbps. At the bottom of the list are Iraq (1.6 Mbps), Algeria (2.1 Mbps) and Nepal (4.4 Mbps). Note that these average speeds represent all types of cellular data connections including 2G and 3G.

Cellular broadband speeds have been improving raoidly in most countries. For instance, in the 2017 report, Opensignal showed South Korea at 37.5 Mbps and Norway at 34.8 Mbps. The US in 2017 was in 36th place at only 12.5 Mbps.

Earlier this year Opensignal released their detailed report about the state of mobile broadband in the United States. This report looks at speeds by carrier and also by major metropolitan area. The US cellular carriers have made big strides just since 2017. The following table compares download speeds for 4G LTE by US carrier for 2017 and 2019.

2019 2017
Download Latency Download Latency
AT&T 17.8 Mbps 57.8 ms 12.9 Mbps 63.8 ms
Sprint 13.9 Mbps 70.0 ms 9.8 Mbps 70.1 ms
T-Mobile 21.1 Mbps 60.6 ms 17.5 Mbps 62.8 ms
Verizon 20.9 Mbps 62.6 ms 14.9 Mbps 67.3 ms

Speeds are up across the board. Sprint increased speeds over the two years by 40%. Latency for 4G is still relatively high. For comparison, fiber-to-the-home networks have latency in the range of 10 ms and coaxial cable networks have latency between 25 – 40 ms. The poor latency in cellular networks is one of the reasons why browsing the web on a cellphone seems so slow. (the other reason is that cellphone browsers focus on graphics rather than speed).

Cellular upload speeds are still slow. In the 2019 tests, the average upload speeds were AT&T (4.6 Mbps), Sprint (2.4 Mbps), T-Mobile (6.7 Mbps) and Verizon (7.0 Mbps).

Speeds vary widely by carrier and city. The fastest cellular broadband market identified in the 2019 tests was T-Mobile in Grand Rapids, Michigan with an average 4G speed of 38.3 Mbps. The fastest upload speed was provided by Verizon in New York City at 12.5 Mbps. Speeds vary by market for several reasons. First, the carriers don’t deploy the same spectrum everywhere in the US, so some markets have less spectrum than others. Markets vary in speed due to the state of upgrades – at any given time cell sites are at different levels of software and hardware upgrades. Finally, markets also vary by cell tower density and markets that serve more customers for each tower are likely to be slower.

Many people routinely take speed tests for their home landline broadband connection. If you’ve not taken a cellular speed test it’s an interesting experience. I’ve always found that speeds vary significantly with each speed test, even when run back-to-back As I was writing this blog I took several speed tests that varied in download speeds between 12 Mbps and 23 Mbps (I use AT&T). My upload speeds also varied with a top speed of 3 Mbps, and one test that couldn’t maintain the upload connection and measured 0.1 Mbps on the test. While landlines broadband connections maintain a steady connection to an ISP, a cellphone establishes a new connection every time you try to download and speeds can vary depending upon the cell site and the channel your phone connects to and the overall traffic at the cell site at the time of connection. Cellular speeds can also be affected by temperature, precipitation and all of those factors that make wireless coverage a bit squirrelly.

It’s going to be a few years until we see any impact on the speed test results from 5G. As you can see by comparing to other countries, the US still has a long way to go to bring 4G networks up to snuff. One of the most interesting aspects of 5G is that speed tests might lose some of their importance. With frequency slicing, a cell site will size a data channel to meet a specific customer need. Somebody downloading a large software update should be assigned a bigger data channel with 5G than somebody who’s just keeping up with sports scores. It will be interesting to see how Opensignal accounts for data slicing.

Millimeter Wave 5G is Fiber-to-the-Curb

I’ve been thinking about and writing about 5G broadband using millimeter wave spectrum for over a year. This is the broadband product that Verizon launched in Sacramento and a few other markets as a trial last year. I don’t know why it never struck me that this technology is the newest permutation of fiber-to-the curb.

That’s an important distinction to make because naming it this way makes it clear to anybody hearing about the technology that the network is mostly fiber with wireless only for the last few hundred feet.

I remember seeing a trial of fiber-to-the-curb back in the very early 2000s. A guy from the horse country in Virginia had developed the technology of delivering broadband from the pole into the home using radios. He had a working demo of the technology at his rural home. Even then he was beaming fast speeds – his demo delivered an uncompressed video signal from curb to home. He knew that the radios could be made capable of a lot more speed, but in those days I’m sure he didn’t think about gigabit speeds.

The issues that stopped his idea from being practical have been a barrier until recently. There was first the issue of getting the needed spectrum. He wanted to use what we now call midrange spectrum, but which were considered as high spectrum bands in 2000 – he would have to convince the FCC to carve out a slice of spectrum for his application, something that’s always been difficult. He also didn’t have any practical way of getting the needed bandwidth to the pole. ISP’s were still selling T1s, 1 Mbps DSL, and 1 Mbps cable modem service, and while fiber existed, the electronics cost for terminating fiber to devices on multiple poles was astronomical. Finally, even then, this guy had a hard time explaining how it would be cheaper to use wireless to get to the home rather than building a drop wire.

Verizon press releases would make you think that they will be conquering the world with millimeter wave radios and deploying the technology everywhere. However, once you think of this as fiber-to-the-curb that business plan quickly makes no sense. The cost of a fiber-to-the-curb network is mostly in the fiber. Any saving from using millimeter wave radios only applies to the last few hundred feet. For this technology to be compelling the savings for the last hundred feed has to be significant. Do the radio electronics really cost less for wireless compared to the cost of fiber drops and fiber electronics?

Any such comparison must consider all the costs of each technology – meaning the cost of installations, repairs, maintenance, and periodic replacement of electronics. And the comparisons need to be honest. For example, every other wireless technology I know requires more maintenance truck roles than fiber-based technologies due to the squirrelly nature of how wireless behaves in the wild.

Even should the radios become much cheaper than fiber drops, the business case for the technology might still have no legs. There is no way to get around the underlying fact that fiber-to-the-curb means building fiber along residential streets. Verizon has always said that they didn’t extend their fiber FiOS network to neighborhoods where the construction costs were too high. Verizon still seems to be the most cautious of the big ISPs and it’s hard to think that they’ve changed this philosophy. Perhaps the Verizon business plan is to cherry pick in markets outside their footprint, but only where they have the low-cost option of overlashing fiber. If that’s their real business plan then they will not be conquering the world with 5G, but just cherry picking neighborhoods that meet their price profile – a much smaller footprint and business plan than most of the industry is expecting.

My hope is that the rest of the industry starts referring to this technology as fiber-to-the-curb instead of calling it 5G. The wireless companies have gained great advantage from using the 5G name for multiple technologies. They have constantly used the speeds from the fiber-to-the-curb trials and the hot spot trials to make the public think the future means gigabit cellular service. It’s time to start demystifying 5G and using a different name for the different technologies.

Once this is understood it ought to finally be clear that millimeter wave fiber-to-the-curb is not coming everywhere. This sounds incredibly expensive to build in neighborhoods with already-buried utilities. Where density is low it might turn out that fiber-to-the-curb is more expensive than fiber-to-the-home. The big cost advantage seems to come from hitting multiple homes from one pole transmitter. Over time, when anybody can buy the needed components of the technology the best business case will become apparent to us all – for now the whole industry is guessing about what Verizon is doing because we don’t understand the basic costs of the technology.

At the end of the day this is just another new technology to put into the quiver when designing last mile networks. There will undoubtably be places where fiber-to-the-curb has a cost advantage over fiber drops. Assuming that Verizon or somebody else builds enough of the technology to pull hardware prices down, I picture a decade from now that fiber overbuilds will consider fiber-to-the-curb as part of the mix in designing the last few hundred feet.

We Need Public 5G Spectrum

Last October the FCC issued a Notice for Proposed Rulemaking that proposed expanding WiFi into the 6 GHz band of spectrum (5.925 to 7.125 GHz). WiFi has been a huge economic boon to the country and the FCC recognizes that providing more free public spectrum is a vital piece of the spectrum puzzle. Entrepreneurs have found a myriad of inventive ways to use WiFi that go far beyond what carriers have provided with licensed spectrum.

In much of the country the 6 GHz spectrum is likely to be limited to indoor usage due to possible outdoor interference with Broadcast Auxiliary Service, where remote crews transmit news feeds to radio and TV stations, and Cable Television Relay Service, which cable companies used to transmit data within a cable company. The biggest future needs for WiFi are going to be indoors, so restricting this spectrum to indoor use doesn’t feel like an unreasonable limitation.

However, WiFi has some inherent limitations. The biggest problem with the WiFi standard is that a WiFi network will pause to allow any user to use the bandwidth. In a crowded environment with a lot of devices the constant pausing adds latency and delay in the system, and in heavy-use environments like a business hotel the constant pauses can nearly shut down a WiFi network. Most of us don’t feel that interference today inside our homes, but as we add more and more devices over time, we will recognize the inherent WiFi interference into our network. The place where WiFi interference is already a big concern is in heavy wireless environments like hospitals, factories, airports, business hotels, and convention centers.

Many of our future computing needs are going to require low latency. For instance, creating home holograms from multiple transmitters is going to require timely delivery of packets to each transmitter. Using augmented reality to assist in surgery will require deliver of images in real time. WiFi promises to get better with the introduction of WiFi 6 using the 802.11ax standard, but that new standard does not eliminate the innate limitations of WiFi.

The good news is that we already have a new wireless standard that can create a low-latency dedicated signal paths to users. Fully implemented 5G with frequency slicing can be used to satisfy those situations where WiFi doesn’t meet the need. It’s not hard to picture a future indoor network where a single router can satisfy some user needs using the WiFi standard with other uses satisfied using 5G – the router will choose the best standard to use for a given need.

To some degrees the cellular carriers have this same vision. They talk of 5G being used to take over IoT needs instead of WiFi. They talk about using 5G for low latency uses like augmented reality. But when comparing the history of the cellular networks and WiFi it’s clear that WiFi has been used far more creatively. There are thousands of vendors working in today’s limited WiFi spectrum that have developed a wide array of wireless services. Comparatively, the cellular carriers have been quite vanilla in their use of cellular networks to deliver voice and data.

I have no doubt that AT&T and Verizon have plans to offer million-dollar 5G solutions for smart factories, hospitals, airports and other busy wireless environments. But in doing so they will tap only a tiny fraction of the capability of 5G. If we want 5G to actually meet the high expectations that the industry has established, we ought to create a public swath of spectrum that can use 5G. The FCC could easily empower the use of the 6 GHz spectrum for both WiFi and 5G, and in doing so would unleash wireless entrepreneurs to come up with technologies that haven’t even been imagined.

The current vision of the cellular carriers is to somehow charge everybody a monthly subscription to use 5G – and there will be enough devices using the spectrum that most people will eventually give in and buy the subscription. However, the big carriers are not going to be particularly creative, and instead are likely to be very restrictive on how we use 5G.

The alternate vision is to set aside a decent slice of public spectrum for indoor use of 5G. The public will gain use of the spectrum by buying a 5G router, with no monthly subscription fee – because it’s using public spectrum. After all, 5G is a just standard, developed worldwide and is not the proprietary property of the big cellular companies. Entrepreneurs will jump on the opportunity to develop great uses for the spectrum and the 5G standard. Rather than being held captive by the limited vision of AT&T and Verizon we’d see huge number of devices using 5G creatively. This could truly unleash things like augmented reality and virtual presence. Specialty vendors would develop applications that make great strides in hospital health care. We’d finally see smart shopping holograms in stores.

The public probably doesn’t understand that the FCC has complete authority over how each swath of spectrum is used. Only the FCC can determine which spectrum can or cannot be used for WiFi, 5G and other standards. The choice ought to be an easy one. The FCC can let a handful of cellular companies decide how society will use 5G or they can unleash the creativity of thousands of developers to come up with a myriad of 5G applications. We know that creating public spectrum creates immense societal and economic good. If the FCC hadn’t set aside public spectrum for WiFi we’d all still have wires to all our home broadband devices and many of the things we now take for granted would never have come to pass.

Why 5G Won’t Be Here Tomorrow

I just saw another article yesterday written by a major-city newspaper telling the public that 5G is coming in 2020. I hate to see reporters who have accepted the nonsense being peddled by the carriers without digging a little deeper to find the truth. At some point in the near future, the public will finally realize that the 5G talk has mostly been hype.

I don’t mean to always sound like a 5G critic because over time 5G will vastly improve the cellular experience. However, many of the improvements being suggested by the cellular companies – like gigabit cellular service – may never happen. Of more immediacy is the fact that there won’t be any major improvements to cellular networks from 5G for at least 3 – 5 years. The carriers have the country and politicians fully convinced that 5G is right around the corner – but it’s not.

There was a recent article written by Sue Marek in FierceWireless that is a great example of why 5G is not going to be here tomorrow. Titled Network Slicing is a Security Nightmare for Operators, Marek explains how complicated it’s going to be to implement network slicing – perhaps the most important new aspect of 5G cellular service.

Network slicing is the ability of the cellular network to size the transmission path to exactly meet a customer’s bandwidth needs. Network slicing is one of the ways that will enable a cell site to communicate with many more customers at the same time. Today, every customer gets the same-sized data channel, meaning a lot of bandwidth is wasted when customers use less than a full channel.

Marek points out the difficult technical challenge for providing security for every slice of bandwidth. She says that getting this right is going to take two to three years. Until network slicing is viable there really is nothing that can be called 5G. The important takeaway from her article is how difficult it is to implement new technology. 5G is a drastic change from 4G in many ways. There are thirteen major changes in the 5G specification compared to 4G and implementing each of them will be a technical challenge.

What is annoying about the 5G marketing hype is that we’ve always known it would take up to a decade to fully implement 5G, just as it did to implement 4G. The cellular companies can’t seem to help themselves from overhyping new technology, but the 5G hype is many times worse than the 4G hype a decade ago. This mostly seems due to the fact that the cellular carriers decided to use the 5G hype as a way to cram through regulatory changes they’ve wanted for a long time. That forced them to really crank up the 5G rhetoric.

5G will take the same path used by all other electronic technologies – there is a tried-and-true method of introducing upgrades. New breakthroughs start in a lab. They then go to a ‘breadboard’ process where working models are developed. Once the breadboards have been thoroughly tested they go into prototype chips, which are then retested to make sure the performance made it through the conversion to silicone. Finally, the chip design is approved and the new breakthrough goes into production. At the very fastest this process might be done in 12 – 18 months, although this can take as long as three years. Breaking in new changes in the cellular world is doubly complicated because these same changes also have to be introduced into cellphone handsets.

The likely progression we’ll see for 5G is that some new aspect of the 5G specification will make it annually into chipsets. As that happens, only the newest phones will be able to use the upgrades, while earlier versions of 5G phones won’t recognize the new breakthroughs. The idea that the handset manufacturers are introducing 5G handsets in 2020 is laughable because practically none of the important 5G upgrades are yet in chip production. Those handsets will be 5G in name only (and still priced ridiculously high).

Marek is pointing out the complexity of getting 5G security right. There are dozens of other equally difficult technical challenges needed to fully realize 5G, and there are scientists in labs working on all of them. The labs will plow through all of this over time, and long after the hype is far in the past, we’ll get 5G phones that implement most of the 5G specification. It’s worth noting that there never may be a phone that meets the entire specification – because the specifications for a new technology are a wish list. It may turn out that some parts of the specification may never practically work in the field.

AT&T and Verizon Fiber

If you look at the annual reports or listen to the quarterly investor calls, you’d think that AT&T and Verizon’s entire future depends upon 5G. As I’ve written in several blogs, there doesn’t seem to be an immediate financial business case for 5G and the big carriers are going to have to figure out how to monetize 5G – something that’s going to take years. Meanwhile, both companies have been expanding their fiber footprints and aggressively adding fiber-based broadband customers.

According to the Leichtman Research Group, AT&T added only 34,000 net broadband customers in the first quarter of this year – not an impressive number when considering that they have 15.7 million broadband numbers. But the underlying story is more compelling. One the 1Q investor call, the company says they added 297,000 fiber customers during the first quarter, and the smaller net number recognizes the decline of DSL customers. The overall financial impact was a net gain of 8% for broadband revenues.

AT&T is starting to understand the dynamics of being a multimedia company in addition to being a wireless carrier and an ISP. According to John Stephens, the AT&T CFO, the company experiences little churn when they are able to sell fiber-based Internet, a video product and cellular service to a customer.

The company views its fiber business as a key part of its growth strategy. AT&T now passes over 20 million homes and businesses with fiber and is aggressively pushing fiber broadband. The company has also undergone an internal consolidation so that all fiber assets are available to every business unit. The company has been expanding its fiber footprint significantly for the last few years, but recently announced they are at the end of major fiber expansion. However, the company will continue to take advantage of the new fiber being built for the nationwide FirstNet network for first responders. In past years the company would have kept FirstNet fiber in its own silo and not gotten the full value out of the investment.

Verizon has a similar story. The company undertook an internal project they call One Fiber where every fiber asset of the company is made available to all Verizon business units. There were over a dozen Verizon business units with separate fiber networks in silos.

Verizon is currently taking advantage of the One Fiber plan for expanding its small cell site strategy. The company knows that small cell sites are vital for maintaining a quality cellular network and they are also still weighing how heavily to invest in 5G wireless loops that deliver wireless broadband in residential neighborhoods.

Verizon has also been quietly expanding its FiOS fiber footprint. The company has gotten regulatory approval to abandon the copper business in over 100 exchanges in the northeast where it operates FiOS. In those exchanges, the company will no longer connect customers to copper service and says they will eventually tear down the copper and become fully fiber-based. That strategy means filling in neighborhoods that were bypassed by FiOS when the network was first built 20 years ago.

Verizon is leading the pack in terms of new fiber construction. They say that are building over 1,000 route miles of fiber every month. This alone is having a big impact on the industry as everybody else is having a harder time locating fiber construction crews.

Verizon’s wireline revenues were down 4% in the first quarter of this year compared to 2018. The company expects to start benefitting from the aggressive fiber construction program and turn that trend around over the next few years. One of the most promising opportunities for the company is to start driving revenues in markets where it’s owned fiber but had never fully monetized the opportunity.

The main competitor for all of the fiber construction by both companies are the big cable companies. The big telcos have been losing broadband customers for years as the cable company broadband has been clobbering DSL. The two telcos are counting on their fiber products to be a fierce competitor to cable company broadband and the companies hope to start recapturing their lost market share. As an outsider I’ve wondered for years why they didn’t do this, and the easy answer was that both companies sunk most of their capital investments into wireless. Now they are seeing that 5G wireless needs fiber, and both companies have decided to capitalize on the new fiber by also selling landline broadband. It’s going to be an interesting battle to watch since both telcos still face the loss of huge numbers of DSL customers – but they are counting on fiber to position them well for the decades to come.

Existing 4G Spectrum

I suspect that most people don’t realize the small number of frequencies that are used today to support cellular service. Below is a list of the frequencies used by each US cellular carrier for providing 4G LTE. Except for Sprint, they all use the same basic frequencies.

Frequencies (in MHz)

AT&T  – 1900, 1700 abcde, 700 bc

Verizon – 1900, 1700 f, 700 c

T-Mobile – 1900, 1700 def, 700 a, 600

Sprint – 1900 g, 850, 2500

The letters represent separate licenses for specific sub-bands of the various frequencies. For example, the 1700 MHz band has been licensed in bands a through f and the carriers own rights to various sub-bands rather than to the whole spectrum. The same is also true for 1900 MHz and 700 MHz spectrum. In many cases, the licenses for the various spectrum bands are not nationwide. This means the frequencies used in Cleveland by one of the carriers might be slightly different than the spectrum used in San Francisco.

The carriers are using these limited spectrum bands today to support both 4G voice and data. In metropolitan areas, the carriers are in big trouble. They are finding it impossible to satisfy customer requests for data service, which is resulting in customer blockages or greatly reduced broadband speeds.

One of the primary reasons that the carriers are running into blockages on 4G data is that they aren’t deploying enough different bands of spectrum for broadband. The carriers have three remedies that can be used to improve cellular data – use more bands of spectrum, build more cell sites (small cells), and implement 5G which will allow for more simultaneous connections.

The CTIA, the lobbying group for the wireless carriers has been heavily lobbying the FCC to allocate 400 MHz of additional mid-range spectrum for cellular data. The FCC is considering repositioning numerous bands of spectrum and the CTIA wants to grab everything possible for data purposes.

Unfortunately, spectrum alone is not going to provide the solution the wireless carriers are hoping for. One of the primary reasons that the cellular carriers only use a few different bands of spectrum today is to simplify handsets. There is a huge price to pay for using multiple bands of spectrum in a cell phone. The more bands of spectrum, the more antennas that must be supported and the more power that is used.

If the cellular companies try to load many more bands of mid-range spectrum onto cellphones they will have majorly overstressed the battery life of phones. Most cellphone customers are not likely going to want to trade faster data speeds for shorter battery lives. As I look forward at the strategies of the cellular carriers, the battery life of cellphones might be their biggest limitation. The question is not so much about how much data a cellphone can handle, but rather how much battery life must be sacrificed to gain broadband  performance. The only solution for this is likely some new battery technology that is not yet on the horizon.

I don’t believe that the average cellphone user values cellular data speeds in the same way that they value fast landline data speeds. 4G today is easily capable of streaming video and there’s no reason on a cellphone to stream more than one video stream at the same time. 4G is reasonably okay today at operating most celular apps. The one group of cellphone users that always want more bandwidth are gamers – but there is no way that cellphones are ever going to be able to match the capabilities of gaming systems or gaming computers using landline broadband connections.

I scratch my head every time I hear 5G claims about providing gigabit cellular service. I don’t want to sound like an old-timer who sees no need for greater speeds. But I think we need to be realistic and ask if superfast cellular bandwidth is really needed today – after all, there are still no landline applications for homes that require anything near to a gigabit of bandwidth. The primary reason homes need faster download speeds is to handle multiple big bandwidth applications at the same time, something that is not today a requirement for cellphones.

The idea of gigabit cellular is mostly coming from the imagination of the cellular company marketers. The 5G standard calls for eventual ubiquitous 100 Mbps cellular speeds. Even achieving that much speed is going to require tying together multiple mid-range bands of spectrum. I’m having a hard time seeing the additional revenue streams that will pay for the massive upgrades needed to reach the 100 Mbps goal. The cellular companies all know this but aren’t talking about it because that would dilute the message that 5G will transform the world.