Is 5G Radiation Safe?

There is a lot of public sentiment against placing small cell sites on residential streets. There is a particular fear of broadcasting higher millimeter wave frequencies near to homes since these frequencies have never been in widespread use before. In the public’s mind, higher frequencies mean a higher danger of health problems related to exposure to radiofrequency emissions. The public’s fears are further stoked when they hear that Switzerland and Belgium are limiting the deployment of millimeter wave radios until there is better proof that they are safe.

The FCC released a report and order on December 4 that is likely to add fuel to the fire. The agency rejected all claims that there is any public danger from radiofrequency emissions and affirmed the existing frequency exposure rules. The FCC said that none of the thousand filings made in the docket provided any scientific evidence that millimeter wave, and other 5G frequencies are dangerous.

The FCC is right in their assertion that there are no definitive scientific studies linking cellular frequencies to cancer or other health issues. However, the FCC misses the point that most of those asking for caution, including scientists, agree with that. The public has several specific fears about the new frequencies being used:

  • First is the overall range of new frequencies. In the recent past, the public was widely exposed to relatively low frequencies from radio and TV stations, to a fairly narrow range of cellular frequencies, and two bands of WiFi. The FCC is in the process of approving dozens of new bands of frequency that will be widely used where people live and work. The fear is not so much about any given frequency being dangerous, but rather a fear that being bombarded by a large range of frequencies will create unforeseen problems.
  • People are also concerned that cellular transmitters are moving from tall towers, which normally have been located away from housing, to small cell sites on poles that are located on residential streets. The fear is that these transmitters are generating a lot of radiation close to the transmitter – which is true. The amount of frequency that strikes a given area decreases rapidly with distance from a transmitter. The anecdote that I’ve seen repeated on social media is of placing a cell site fifteen feet from the bedroom of a child. I have no idea if there is a real small cell site that is the genesis of this claim – but there could be. In dense urban neighborhoods, there are plenty of streets where telephone poles are within a few feet of homes. I admit that I would be leery about having a small cell site directly outside one of my windows.
  • The public worries when they know that there will always be devices that don’t meet the FCC guidelines. As an example, the Chicago Tribune tested eleven smartphones in August and found that a few of them were issuing radiation at twice the FCC maximum-allowable limit. The public understands that vendors play loose with regulatory rules and that the FCC largely ignores such violations.

The public has no particular reason to trust this FCC. The FCC under Chairman Pai has sided with the large carriers on practically every issue in front of the Commission. This is not to say that the FCC didn’t give this docket the full consideration that should be given to all dockets – but the public perception is that this FCC would side with the cellular carriers even if there was a public health danger.

The FCC order is also not particularly helped by citing the buy-in from the Food and Drug Administration on the safety of radiation. That agency has licensed dozens of medicines that later proved to be harmful, so that agency also doesn’t garner a lot of public trust.

The FCC made a few changes with this order. They have mandated a new set of warning signs to be posted around transmitters. It’s doubtful that anybody outside of the industry will understand the meaning of the color-coded warnings. The FCC is also seeking comments on whether exposure standards should be changed for frequencies below 100 kHz and above 6 GHz. The agency is also going to exempt certain kinds of transmitters from FCC testing.

I’ve read extensively on both sides of the issue and it’s impossible to know the full story. For example, a majority of scientists in the field signed a petition to the United Nations warning against using higher frequencies without more testing. But it’s also easy to be persuaded by other scientists who say that higher frequencies don’t even penetrate the skin. I’ve not heard of any studies that look at exposing people to a huge range of different low-power frequencies.

This FCC is in a no-win position. The public properly perceives the agency of being pro-carrier, and anything the FCC says is not going to persuade those worried about radiation risks. I tend to side with the likelihood that the radiation is not a big danger, but I also have to wonder if there will be any impact after expanding by tenfold the range of frequencies we’re exposed to. The fact is that we’re not likely to know until after we’ve all been exposed for a decade.

Spectrum and Weather Forecasting

There is currently a brewing controversy over the allocation of various radio frequencies for 5G that could have a negative impact on weather forecasting. Weather forecasting has become extremely sophisticated and relies on masses of data gathered from weather satellites and other data-gathering devices. The masses of data, along with modern supercomputers and data center computing have significantly improved the ability to predict future weather.

There are numerous bands of spectrum used in weather forecasting. For an in-depth look at the complexity of the spectrum needs, see this guide for spectrum used for meteorology from the World Meteorological Association and the ITU (warning: highly technical document). It goes into depth about the various bands of frequency that are used for various weather gathering purposes.

The current controversy involves the use of spectrum at 23.8 GHz. It turns out this frequency has the characteristic that it is absorbed by water vapor. This makes it valuable for meteorological purposes since it can be used by devices in satellites called sounders to measure the different levels of water vapor in the air. This is one of the most valuable tools in the weather data gathering system, particularly over oceans where there are few other measuring devices.

The sounders work by emitting the 23.8 GHz spectrum and measuring the return signals, working similarly to radar. The process of measuring water vapor is extremely sensitive to interference because the return signals to the sounders are extremely faint. The weather community is worried that even a little bit of interference will kill the utility of this valuable tool.

In May 2019 the FCC raised over $2.7 billion through the auction of spectrum in the 24 GHz and 28 GHz bands, including spectrum sitting directly adjacent to the 23.8 GHz band. Before the auction, the administrator of NASA warned the FCC that leakage from the newly auctioned spectrum could degrade the use of the 23.8 GHz spectrum. NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) told Congress the same thing. NOAA said that a 30% degradation in the accuracy of the sounders could worsen the ability to predict where hurricanes will land by two or three days – something that would have a huge negative dollar cost.

It’s a convenient fiction in the wireless world that radios stay within the exact frequency bands they are supposed to use. However, in real life radios often stray out-of-band for various reasons and cause interference in adjacent frequency bands. This happens up and down the radio spectrum, but in this case, scientists say that even a little interference could make it difficult or impossible to read the faint signals that are read by the sounders to measure water vapor.

Both NASA and NOAA have proposed that the FCC lower the chances of interference by lowering the power level and the ‘noise’ that comes from cross-band interference. They asked for a limit of -42 decibel watts of noise for nearby spectrum bands while the FCC is recommending -20 decibel watts. The lower the decibel watts number, the less the interference. The World Radiocommunications Conference has a current recommendation of -33 decibel watts, which is scheduled to lower to -39 decibel watts in 2027.

The carriers that bought the spectrum, through filings made by the CTIA, say that the frequencies would be a lot less valuable to them if they have to lower power to meet the noise levels recommended by NASA and NOAA, and the FCC is siding with the carriers.

This is just the first of many frequency battles we’re going to see as the thirst for more 5G spectrum invades spectrum that has been used for scientific or military purposes. The FCC often tries to mitigate interference by moving existing spectrum users to some different frequency band in order to accommodate the best use of spectrum. However, in this case, the weather satellites must use 23.8 GHz because that’s where nature has set the interference with water vapor.

It’s hard not to side with the weather scientists. Everybody, including the carriers, will suffer great harm if the ability to predict hurricanes is degraded. When it comes to something as vital as being able to predict hurricanes, we need to use common sense and caution rather than give the 5G companies every possible slice of available spectrum. It’s not hard to predict that the carriers will fight hard to keep this spectrum even if there is too much interference. Unfortunately, the current FCC is granting the carriers everything on their wish list – expect more of this in 2020.

The Government’s Role in 5G

It’s been really interesting to watch how much the federal government talks about 5G technology. I’ve not seen anything else like this in my adult lifetime, although there may have been times in the past, such as the advent of railroads or electricity that the federal government took such an active interest in new technology.

The government gets involved to some extent in many new technologies, but with 5G there has been a steady and persistent dialog about how 5G is vital to our economic future, and pronouncements of why we must implement 5G as quickly as possible to stay ahead of the rest of the world. As I’ve watched the way the government talks about 5G, it makes me wonder why we never heard the same urgency for breakthroughs like personal computers, the world wide web, or understanding the human genome.

A good example of what I’m talking about came in November when a bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to Robert O’Brien, the current national security advisor asking for a better government strategy for 5G. They claimed they are concerned that China is winning the 5G war, which they believe creates a security threat for the US.

I’ve been hearing about the 5G war for a few years now and I still don’t know what it means. 5G is ultimately a broadband technology. I can’t figure out how the US is harmed if China gets better broadband. If there is now a 5G war, then why hasn’t there been a fiber-to-the-home war? I saw recently where China passed us in the number of last-mile fiber connections, and there wasn’t a peep about it out of Congress.

The market reality of 5G looks a lot different than the rhetoric from the politicians. Cellular carriers worldwide are crowing about 5G deployment, yet those deployments contain none of the key technology that defines 5G performance. There is no frequency slicing. There is no bonding together of multiple frequencies to create larger data pipes. There is no massive expansion of the number of connections that can be made at a website. Cellphones can’t yet connect to multiple cell sites. What we have instead, for now, are new frequencies layered on top of 4G LTE.

New frequency does not equal 5G. The millimeter wave spectrum is faster in the handful of neighborhoods where people can go outside in the winter to use it. The carriers admit that the 600 MHz and the850 MHz spectrum being deployed won’t result in faster speeds than 4G LTE.

AT&T recently announced a significant cut in its capital budget for 2020 – something that is hard to imagine if there is an urgent need to deploy 5G faster than the Chinese. The reality is that the big cellular companies are struggling to find a business case for 5G. They are starting to realize that a lot of people aren’t willing to pay more for faster cellular data. Some of their other big uses for 5G such as using it for self-driving cars, or for supplanting WiFi as the technology to handle IoT devices are still years into the future and may never come to fruition.

The other Washington DC talking point is that 5G networks will be 100 times faster than today’s cellular data. That may be true in the tiny downtown urban areas that get saturated with outdoor millimeter wave broadband. I have a hard time thinking this is anything more than a gimmick that will never become widespread. A dense fiber network is needed to support the millimeter wave transmitters, and it’s hard to think that the revenues from millimeter wave broadband will ever justify building the needed network.

It’s starting to look like the real reason for the talk about a 5G war is to drum up sympathy for the big cellular carriers as a justification for big government giveaways. The FCC has been generous to the cellular carriers in the last few years. They killed broadband regulation and net neutrality. They gave the cellphone carriers the right to place cellular equipment anywhere in the public right-of-way. Just recently the FCC created a 5G Fund to give $9 billion to the cellular carriers to expand their networks in rural areas. The FCC has been freeing up every imaginable band of spectrum for 5G.

That sounds like that ought to be enough, but since these giveaways are behind us, I wonder why I’m still hearing the rhetoric, such as the recent letter from Senators. Are we going to be seeing other big giveaways? Is the government perhaps going to give billions of dollars to build urban and suburban 5G networks so that we don’t lose the 5G war? I’m at a loss to think of anything else that the government could do to push 5G beyond what they’ve already done.

There doesn’t seem to be anything that the US government can do in terms of developing 5G technology faster. Corporations all over the world are furiously working to implement the many new aspects of the 5G specifications. Many of the corporations doing the key research are not even American, and labs at Nokia and several Chinese companies are among the leaders in developing the core equipment used to transmit 5G. It’s hard to think there is anything the US government could do to help us win the 5G war from a technical perspective.

I must admit that I’m starting to cringe when I hear federal officials talk about the 5G war. It makes me believe that there more big handouts coming to the cellular carriers. I hate the idea of the federal government handing billions to these big carriers while we continue to have lousy rural broadband – which is largely the fault of these same big carriers. My response to these Senators is that we shouldn’t be trying to win the 5G war if that means losing the landline broadband war.

AT&T Cutting Capital Spending

AT&T announced it will be reducing capital spending in 2020. That news is significant for several reasons. AT&T’s capital plans are always big news because they have the largest annual capital budget of the big telcos and cable companies. The AT&T capital budget for 2019 was $23 billion. It’s big news when they are only planning on spending $20 billion in 2020.

It’s worth noting that some of AT&T’s capital spending is not being done with their own money. In 2020 they will be receiving the final installment of $428 million for the sixth year of the CAF II program. AT&T recently announced that they are 75% finished the construction of the FirstNet network for first responders, so the company should be receiving the last 25% of the $6.5 billion of federal funding next year. In future years AT&T will likely be collecting some significant share of the recently announced $9 billion 5G Fund paid out of the Universal Service Fund to bring better cellular service for the most rural parts of the country.

There are ripples throughout the telecom sector when AT&T increases or decreases its capital budget. For example, a significant slash of AT&T spending has a significant impact on the various major electronics vendors that will now have to lower their revenue expectations for 2020. While the whole telecom sector is busy, this still means lower revenues for the major telecom vendors.

This reduction in AT&T spending makes me wonder about the 5G war we are supposedly having with China. If you listen to the carrier-driven rhetoric in Washington DC, you would think that there is an urgent need to spend huge amounts of capital immediately on 5G infrastructure. It was that rhetoric that gave the FCC cover to double the size of the recently announced 5G Fund to $9 billion.

It’s hard to imagine that AT&T would be cutting its capital budget if 5G implementation was truly a national priority and a crisis. The truth about 5G can be seen by how the cellular carrier CEOs communicate with their stockholders – the big carriers are struggling right now to find an immediate business case that justifies huge spending on 5G. It turns out that much of the public isn’t willing to pay more for faster cellular broadband. Every carrier has a list of future benefits from 5G, but there are no applications that will create the quick revenues that would prompt AT&T to keep spending capital at historic levels.

This is not to say that AT&T and the other wireless carriers aren’t spending money on 5G – but AT&T is fitting 5G expansion into its shrinking capital budget. Contrary to everything that the carriers have been telling Washington DC, the carriers are not planning on spending massive amounts of their own money on 5G just yet.

Lower capital spending by AT&T also takes the wind out of the sails of the FCC’s argument that net neutrality was holding back the big ISPs from making capital expenditures. This was the primary reason cited by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai for killing net neutrality and Title II regulation. He argued that overregulation was stopping the big carriers from investing, and he’s still making this same argument today to justify his decision. If Chairman Pai was right, we should be seeing AT&T increase capital spending rather than cutting it.

The idea that there is a direct correlation between capital spending and regulation was always fictional. Big ISPs spend money on capital that they think will increase future returns – it’s hard to imagine regulations that would stop the big companies from pursuing good business ideas. AT&T’s capital spending is much more related to what its competitors like Verizon, T-Mobile, and Comcast are doing. When the FCC killed Title II regulation and net neutrality, the agency was removing the last regulations major from a broadband industry that was already barely regulated. It’s hard to think that change had much impact in the Board room or the business development groups at the big ISPs.

It’s worth noting that AT&T has now joined many other big US corporations and is using free cash to buy back its own stock. The company already announced plans to buy back $4 billion of its own stock in the first quarter of 2020 – retiring roughly 100 million shares. I’m sure that decision had some impact on the capital budget. This might mean that AT&T upper management values stock buy-backs to increase earnings per share more than they value capital spending.

The Upcoming 5G Confusion

Until now the 5G industry has spread a lot of hype, but it hasn’t affected customers. That’s all starting to change as the cellular carriers are starting to offer 5G phones. Many customers who spend extra for 5G phones are going to quickly be frustrated and disappointed as they try to participate in the new 5G world.

Consider both AT&T and T-Mobile. Both companies are introducing both a low-band and a high-band 5G phone and customers who want 5G will have to choose one of the two options because the carriers don’t offer a phone that handles both new sets of spectrum.

In AT&T’s case, the low-band phone will introduce 850 MHz spectrum while the high-band phone will use millimeter wave spectrum. The T-Mobile low-band phone will use 600 MHz spectrum with the high-band phone will use millimeter wave spectrum.

Customers buying any of these phones are likely to be disappointed. The high-band phones only work outdoors and when a customer is within range of a handful of millimeter wave hotspots, which are mostly in downtown areas of major cities. Unless somebody has a job that keeps them outside within a small downtown urban footprint, the new high-band phones will default to 4G LTE. Even where a customer is within range of the millimeter wave spectrum it’s been reported that the signal gets easily blocked when a customer turns a corner around a building or even sometimes when the customer’s body blocks the path to the cell site.

Customers of the low-band phones are also likely to be disappointed. The two new low-band spectrums being used are great at penetrating buildings, and so data coverage might improve indoors. However, low-band spectrum, by definition, doesn’t carry a lot of bandwidth. A customer with a low-band 5G phone will likely get data speeds similar to 4G LTE. That is predicated upon living or working close to cell sites that have been upgraded to the new low-band spectrum – because many cell sites won’t yet carry the new spectrum.

There might be a short period of time where a customer with a low-band phone sees better performance – but that will be because they will be one of the few users of the new spectrum. As the more people use the new spectrum bands, the performance will look like that in similar bands of spectrum. I remember how early customers with 4G LTE praised the fast speeds, but those fast speeds fell back to normal within a short period of time.

The real bang with low-band spectrum will come in a few years after the cellular carriers perfect and integrate dynamic spectrum sharing into the 5G architecture. This is one of the new 5G features that let the cellular carriers combine multiple frequencies into a single data path to a customer. Today, a customer with one of the low-band phones will either be using the new low-band spectrum or traditional 4G LTE spectrum – but not both at the same time. The other benefit of the lower spectrum bands is that the spectrum will travel farther from a cell site, albeit at slower speeds.

The new phones will be confusing to customers for another reason – customers won’t be able to use these new phones to change carriers. A phone that can receive AT&T’s 850 MHz spectrum is not going to receive T-Mobile’s 600 MHz spectrum. A customer changing carriers with one of the new phones is going to only get traditional 4G LTE at a different carrier. This is going to become the new norm for the next decade as the carriers start using drastically different bands of spectrum.

Unfortunately, the cellular companies aren’t being straight with customers and are touting these new phones as high-performance 5G. The phones are not yet 5G since they don’t incorporate the best new features of the 5G standards – instead, they are 4G LTE phones that are adding new choices of spectrum. Perhaps the new phones can be labeled as 4.1 G, but I think even that would be generous.

The other big problem with the first generation of phones is that they will be obsolete once the carriers start adding the new 5G functions. 5G has a lot of great features coming including dynamic spectrum sharing (combines multiple frequencies), frequency slicing (gives each customer a data connection to match what they are trying to do), and the ability to connect to more than one cellular tower. This is going to be a problem between now and the time that 5G is mature – any 5G phone already in use won’t be able to handle any new feature as it’s introduced. Every 5G phone sold for the next decade will almost instantly be obsolete in terms of not being able to use new features.

I’m not sure why anybody would shell out extra to buy a 5G phones today. There might be a few people that have a specific reason to use the new spectrum and who happen to live in the right place to be able to use it. However, the vast majority of people are going to be disappointed since they are likely to have paid extra for a phone that’s still going to be 4G LTE. I know people like bragging rights by having the latest tech toy – but somebody buying a 5G phone is more of a sucker than an innovator. They will have bought into the carriers’ 5G hype – hook, line, and sinker.

Aesthetics and 5G

A recent news article by CBS4 in Denver shows a power supply unit for 5G that was recently installed in Aurora, CO. It’s roughly 5-foot tall and I venture to guess that most homeowners would not want this device at the front of their home.

The cellular companies have convinced the FCC that they need carte blanche authority to place small cell sites where they are needed, and the FCC gave them this authority in September 2018. The FCC order reversed the historic process where cell site placement was under local control. In asking for a national preemption of local rules the cellular carriers argued that they needed blanket authority to put cell sites anywhere in public rights-of-way if the US is to win the 5G war.

Communities all over the country have pushed back hard against the FCC ruling. Numerous cities and states have filed lawsuits against the FCC ruling. Courts have chipped away at that ruling and in August of this year, the US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the FCC couldn’t preempt local ordinances concerning environmental and historic preservation reviews of cell site placement. A few cities have passed ordinances that would stop deployment of small cells due to concerns about health, property values, or aesthetics.

When the wireless companies first started deploying pole-mounted small cell sites some of the deployments were major eyesores. Deployments included placing large boxes and antennas and power supplies in the air connected by a maze of live wires. The wireless carriers quickly cleaned up their act in terms of hideous deployments, but in looking at the deployment in Aurora they still have a way to go. One interesting thing about this deployment is that the device sits on the ground. When this order was issued the press covered this as an order about placing devices on poles and they missed that the FCC gave the big carriers the right to put devices anywhere in the public right-of-way.

Historically, carriers would seek homeowner permission to install cabinet-sized boxes. More often than not they would find a place in a neighborhood where the cabinets and boxes were somewhat hidden from sight. Even though the process required voluntary participation by homeowners, it worked well. Sometimes carriers had to go to the city when they were unable to find a location for a needed cabinet, but in most cases, the carriers and the public worked out a solution.

It seems unfair that the first time that a homeowner finds they are getting a large cabinet in their yard is during the installation process. Just because carriers have the right to place anything related to small cells in the right-of-way doesn’t mean they should callously do so without communicating with the public. In this case, the wireless carrier probably had alternatives like placing the needed electronics in an underground vault instead of the large cabinet. That solution would cost more but would eliminate animosity with residents.

That raises an interesting regulatory question. In the long-run regulations are driven by what the public finds acceptable or unacceptable. The public in Aurora is not likely to be upset by this one small cell deployment, but imagine if there are 200, or 500 or 1,000 identical cabinets placed around the city. When carriers deploy solutions that the public doesn’t like, a city is going to fight back against the unpopular practices. New ordinances for small cells are likely to end up in court, and at some point, a judge will decide if the Aurora small cell device somehow crosses the line.

The FCC 5G order is interesting in that it swings to the far extreme of the regulatory pendulum by ruling that the wireless carriers have blanket authority to place any device anywhere they want. Over time, whether done by a future FCC, by the courts, or by Congress, rulings at the extreme fringe of the regulatory pendulum inevitably swing back towards the center. It’s almost inevitable over time that cities will get back more say about the aesthetics of small cell placement.

C-Band Announcement Moot on Rural Wireless

On November 18, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai told several members of Congress that he had decided there should be a public auction for the C-Band spectrum that sits between 3.7 GHz and 4.2 GHz. The spectrum has historically been used by satellite companies for communication between satellites and earth stations. This is prime spectrum for 5G cellular broadband, but also could provide a huge benefit to fixed wireless providers in rural America. Chairman Pai will be asking the rest of the FCC commissioners to approve an order sometime after the first of next year. Making an early announcement is a bit unusual since major orders like this are usually announced by releasing a written order that comes after a vote of the Commission.

The letters from Chairman Pai describe four reasons behind the decision: First, we must make available a significant amount of C-Band spectrum for 5G. Second, we must make spectrum available for 5G quickly. Third, we must generate revenue for the federal government. And, Fourth, we must protect the services that are currently delivered using the C-Band so that they can continue to be delivered to the American people. 

Missing from Chairman Pai’s letter was any mention of making the C-Band spectrum available for rural fixed wireless. WISPA and other rural proponents have been lobbying for sharing the spectrum so that the C-Band could be used for urban 5G while also benefitting faster rural broadband.

This has been an unusual docket from the start because the satellite providers, under the name of the C-Band Alliance (CBA) offered to relocate to the higher part of the spectrum if they could hold a private auction to sell the vacated spectrum to the cellular carriers. There were several problems with that offer. First, the satellite providers would make billions of dollars of windfall profits through selling spectrum that they don’t own. Federal law makes it clear that the FCC has the right to award or take-back spectrum and it would have been a major precedent for license holders to be able to sell spectrum for a huge profit. There were also obvious concerns about transparency, and it was feared that backroom deals would be struck to give spectrum to the big cellular carriers for bargain prices while still benefitting the satellite companies.

There was also a political nuance. The CBA proposed to give some of the proceeds of the private auction to the federal government, similar to what happens in an FCC auction. However, money given that way would go towards paying off the federal deficit. Proceeds of FCC auctions can be earmarked for specific uses and legislators all wanted to see the spectrum sold by FCC auction so that they could use some of the money.

The rural spectrum-sharing idea might not be not dead since the announcement was made by short letter. However, the Chairman could easily have mentioned rural broadband in the letters to legislators and didn’t. The Chairman has made numerous speeches where he said that solving the rural digital divide is his primary goal. It’s clear by his actions during the last few years that deregulation and giveaways to the big carriers under the guise of promoting 5G are the real priority of this FCC.

The C-Band spectrum sits next to the recently released CBRS spectrum at 3.5 GHz. Just as additional spectrum benefits 5G, fixed wireless technology improves significantly by combining multiple bands of frequency. Rural carriers have been arguing for years that the FCC should allow for the sharing of spectrum. Proponents of rural broadband argue that urban and rural use of spectrum can coexist since most 5G spectrum is only going to be needed in urban areas. They believe that such spectrum can be used in a point-to-point or point-to-multipoint configuration in rural America without interfering with urban 5G. The big cellular carriers are reluctant to share spectrum because it causes them extra effort, so only the FCC can make it happen.

If the final order doesn’t require frequency sharing, it will be another slap in the face for rural broadband. Since there is not yet a written order, proponents of rural broadband still have an opportunity to be heard at the FCC on the topic. However, I fear that the issue has already been decided and that rural broadband will again be ignored by the FCC.

Our Degrading Cellular Networks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.