Categories
Regulation - What is it Good For?

The CHIPS Act and Wireless

The recently enacted CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 is providing a lot of funding to bring more chip manufacturing back to the U.S. This funding fills a big hole in the U.S. supply chain. We have some chip manufacturing in the U.S., but we only make about 12% of the chips that we use in cellphones, cars, computers, and broadband technology.

Making domestic chips became a national priority when we saw during the pandemic that international chipmakers took care of regional demand before U.S. demand. U.S. automakers are still largely on hold due to a lack of chips, and there has been a rumor floating around the broadband industry that we’re going to see another round of chip shortages for broadband gear. It will take some years to turn this new funding into chip factories, but in the long run, this is one of the more sensible things Congress has done in many years.

The CHIPs Act approved $52 billion to bring chip manufacturing back to the U.S. But like all big legislation, not all of the money appropriated goes to the main goal. For example, there is funding in the bill for new research and development in the technical sciences. Today’s blog looks at funding from the CHIPs Act that is being used for the mobile industry. Specifically, the CHIPS legislation:

Appropriates $1.5 billion for the Public Wireless Supply Chain Innovation Fund, to spur movement towards open-architecture, software-based wireless technologies, funding innovative, ‘leap-ahead’ technologies in the U.S. mobile broadband market. The fund would be managed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), with input from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Department of Homeland Security, and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, among others.

This sounds like funding for wireless product research to find new market uses for 5G. I’m a big believer that the federal government should have a large role in funding basic science research and development. One of the reasons that the U.S. has had technological success in the past is that we funded the basic research that has made the breakthroughs that turned into our current technology industries. National funding for pure research has fallen in recent years to woefully low levels.

But I’m not a big fan of the U.S. government undertaking product research. That is something that ought to be left to the industries that will benefit from the research. This $1.5 billion feels like a handout to the big wireless companies – and they don’t need this money.

Consider dividends. Verizon paid out $10.4 billion in dividends to stockholders in 2021, or almost $2.50 for every outstanding share. In recent shareholder meetings, the company says the goal is to increase dividends in the coming years. AT&T most recently paid $8 billion per year in dividends or $1.11 per share in recent quarters.

T-Mobile is the most cash-flush of the big cellular carriers and told shareholders earlier this year that the company plans to spend $60 billion by the end of 2025 to buy back its own stock.

These three companies don’t need a $1.5 billion government handout, but as often happens, the industries that lobby the hardest often get rewarded with funding. If the $1.5 billion is spent wisely, it might turn into future profits for these companies. But this is research that these companies should be routinely funding directly.

This feels like a residual benefit to these companies from all of the effort they put into persuading the government that we were losing an imaginary 5G war with China. That discussion is still not completely dead, and we still occasionally hear a politician talking about our 5G crisis.

I love the concept behind the CHIPS Act, and I hope it spurs 100,000 new permanent manufacturing jobs and greatly expands the domestic chip supply. But I am not a fan when big legislation is used to pay back industries that spend huge money to lobby politicians.

Categories
Technology

7G – Really?

I thought I’d check in on the progress that laboratories have made in considering 6G networks. The discussion on what will replace 5G kicked off with a worldwide meeting hosted in 2019 at the University of Oulu, in Levi, Lapland, Finland.

6G technology will explore the frequencies between 100 GHz and 1 THz. This is the frequency range that lies between radio waves and infrared light. These spectrums could support unimaginable wireless data transmission rates of up to one terabyte per second – with the tradeoff that such transmissions will only be effective for extremely short distances.

Scientists have already said 5G will be inadequate for some computing and communication needs. There is definitely a case to be made for applications that need huge amounts of data in real-time. For example, a 5G wireless signal at a few gigabits per second is not able to transmit enough data to support complex real-time manufacturing processes. There is not enough data being transmitted with a 5G network to support things like realistic 3D holograms and the future metaverse.

Scientists at the University of Oulu say they are hoping to have a lab demonstration of the ability to harness the higher spectrum bands by 2026, and they expect the world will start gelling on 6G standards around 2028. That all sounds reasonable and is in line with what they announced in 2019. One of the scientists at the University was quoted earlier this year saying that he hoped that 6G wouldn’t get overhyped as happened with both 4G and 5G.

I think it’s too late for that. You don’t need to do anything more than search for 6G on Google to find a different story – you’ll have to wade through a bunch of articles declaring we’ll have commercial 6G by 2030 before you even find any real information from those engaged in 6G research. There is even an online 6G magazine with news about everything 6G. These folks are already hyping that there will be a worldwide scramble as governments fight to be the first ones to master and integrate 6G – an upcoming 6G race.

I just shake my head when I see this – but it is nothing new. It seems every new technology these days spawns an industry of supposed gurus and prognosticators who try to monetize the potential for each new technology. The first technology I recall seeing this happen with was municipal WiFi in the 1990s. There were expensive seminars and even a paper monthly magazine touting the technology – which, by the way, barely worked and quickly fizzled. Since then, we’ve seen the guru industry pop up for every new technology like 5G, block-chain, AI, bitcoin, and now the metaverse and 6G. Most new cutting-edge technologies find their way into the economy but at a much slower pace than touted by the so-called early experts.

But before the imaginary introduction of 6G s by 2030, we will need to first integrate 5G into the world. Half of the cellphones in the world still connect using 3G. While 3G is being phased out in the U.S., it’s going to be a slower process elsewhere. While there are hundreds of Google links to articles that predict huge numbers of 5G customers this year – there aren’t any. At best, we’re currently at 4.1G or 4.2G – but the engineering reality is obviously never going to deter the marketers. We’ll probably see a fully compliant 5G cell site before the end of this decade, and it will be drastically different, and better, than what we’re calling 5G today. It’ll take another few years after that for real 5G technology to spread across U.S. urban areas. There will be a major discussion among cellular carriers about whether the 5G capabilities will make any sense in rural areas since the 5G technology is mostly aimed at solving overcrowded urban cellular networks.

Nobody is going to see a 6G cellphone in their lifetime, except perhaps as a gimmick. We’re going to need several generations of better batteries before any handheld device can process terabyte data without zapping the battery within minutes. That may not deter Verizon from showing a cellular speed test at 100 Gbps – but marketers will be marketers.

Believe it or not, there are already discussions about 7G – although nobody can define it. It seems that it will have something to do with AI and the Internet of Things. It’s a little fuzzy about how something after 6G will even be related to the evolution of cellular technology – but this won’t stop the gurus from making money off the gullible.

Categories
Technology The Industry

The Battle for IoT

There is an interesting battle going on to be the technology that monetizes the control of Internet of Things devices. Like a lot of tech hype, IoT has developed a lot slower than originally predicted – but it’s now finally becoming a big business. I think back to a decade ago when tech prognosticators said we’d soon be living in a virtual cloud of small monitors that would monitor everything in our life. According to those early predictions, our farm fields should already be fully automated, and we should all be living in the smart home envisioned by the Jetsons. Those predictions probably say more about the tech press that hypes new technologies than about IoT.

I’ve been noticing increasing press releases and articles talking about different approaches to monetizing IoT traffic. The one that we’ve all heard the most about is 5G. The cellular companies told Wall Street five years ago that the monitoring of IoT devices was going to fuel the 5G business plan. The wireless companies envisioned households all buying a second cellular subscription to monitor devices.

Except in a few minor examples, this business plan never materialized. I was reminded of it this week when I saw AT&T partnering with Smart Meter to provide patient monitoring for chronic conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure. The monitoring devices worn by patients include a SIM card, and patients can be monitored anywhere within range of a cellular signal. It’s a great way for AT&T to monetize IoT subscriptions – in this case, with monthly fees likely covered by health insurance. It sounds like an awesome product.

Another player in the IoT world is LEO satellites. In August of last year, Starlink made a rare acquisition by buying Swarm. This company envisions using satellites to be able to monitor outdoor IOT devices anywhere in the world. The Swarm satellites are less than a pound each, and the Swarm website says the goal is to have three of these small satellites in range of every point on earth by the end of 2022. That timeline slowed due to the purchase by Starlink, but this could be a huge additional revenue stream for the company. Swarm envisions putting small receivers in places like fields. Like with Starlink, customers must buy the receivers, and there is an IoT data monitoring plan that will allow the collection of 750 data packets per month for a price of $60 per year.

Also still active in pursuing the market are a number of companies promoting LoRaWAN technology. This technology uses tall towers or blimps and CBRS or some other low-power spectrum to communicate with IoT monitors over a large geographic area. The companies developing this technology can be found at the LoRa Alliance.

Of course, the current king of IoT is WiFi. Charter recently said it is connected to 5 billion devices on its WiFi network. WiFi has the advantage of a free IoT connection for the price of buying a broadband connection.

Each of these technologies has a natural market niche. The AT&T health monitoring system only makes sense on a cellular network since patients need to be monitored everywhere they go during the day. Cellular should be the go-to technology for mobile monitoring. The battle between LoRaWAN and satellites will be interesting and will likely eventually come down to price. Both technologies can be used to reach farm fields where cellular coverage is likely to never be ubiquitous. WiFi is likely to carry the signals from the devices in our homes – the AT&T vision of everybody buying an IoT cellular data plan sounds extremely unlikely since we all can have the same thing for the cost of a WiFi router.

Categories
Technology The Industry

When Will We See Real 5G?

The non-stop wireless industry claims that we’ve moved from 4G to 5G finally slowed to the point that I stopped paying attention to it during the last year. There is an interesting article in PC Magazine that explains why 5G has dropped off the front burner.

The article cites interviews with Art Pouttu of Finland’s University of Oulu about the current state and the future of 5G. That university has been at the forefront of the development of 5G technology and is already looking at 6G technology.

Pouttu reminds us that there is a new ‘G” generation of wireless technology about every ten years but that it takes twenty years for the market to fully embrace all of the benefits of a new generation of wireless technology.

We are just now entering the heyday of 4G. The term 4G has been bantered around by wireless marketing folks for so long that it’s hard to believe that we didn’t see a fully-functional 4G cell site until late in 2018. Since then, the cellular companies have beefed up 4G in two ways. First, the technology is now spread through cell sites everywhere. But more importantly, 4G systems have been bolstered by the addition of new bands of cellular spectrum. The marketing folks have gleefully been labeling this new spectrum as 5G, but the new spectrum is doing nothing more than supporting the 4G network.

I venture to guess that almost nobody thinks their life has been drastically improved because 4G cellphone speeds have climbed in cities over the last few years from 30 Mbps to over 100 Mbps. I can see that faster speed on my cellphone if I take a speed test, but I haven’t really noticed much difference between the performance of my phone today compared to four years ago.

There are two major benefits from the beefed-up 4G. The first benefits everybody but has gone unnoticed. The traditional spectrum bands used for 4G were getting badly overloaded, particularly in metropolitan areas. The new bands of spectrum have relieved the pressure on cell sites and are supporting the continued growth in cellular data use. Without the new spectrum, our 4G experience would be deteriorating.

The new spectrum has also enabled the cellular carriers to all launch rural fixed cellular broadband products. Before the new spectrum, there was not enough bandwidth on rural cell sites to support both cellphones and fixed cellular customers. The many rural homes that can finally buy cellular broadband that is faster than rural DSL are the biggest winners.

But those improvements have nothing to do with 5G. The article points out what has always been the case. The promise of 5G has never been about better cellphone performance. It’s always been about applications like using wireless spectrum in complex settings like factories where feedback from huge numbers of sensors needs to be coordinated in real-time.

The cellular industry marketing machine did a real number on all of us – but perhaps most of all on the politicians. We’ve had the White House, Congress, and State politicians all talking about how the U.S. needed to win the 5G war with China – and there is still some of that talk going around today. This hype was pure rubbish. What the cellular carriers needed was more spectrum from the FCC to stave off the collapse of the cellular networks. But no cellular company wanted to crawl to Congress begging for more spectrum, because doing so would have meant the collapse of cellular company stock prices. Instead, we were fed a steady diet of false rhetoric about how 5G was going to transform the world.

The message from the University of Oulu is that most 5G features are probably still five or six years away. But even when they finally get here, 5G is not going to bring much benefit or change to our daily cellphone usage. It was never intended to do that. We already have 100 Mbps cellular data speeds with no idea how to use the extra speed on our cellphones.

Perhaps all we’ve learned from this experience is that the big cellular companies have a huge amount of political and social clout and were able to pull the wool over everybody’s eyes. They told us that the sky was falling and could only be fixed with 5G. I guess we’ll find out in a few years if we learned any lesson from this because we can’t be far off from hearing the hype about 6G. This time it will be 100% hype because 6G deals with the use of extremely short frequencies that will never be used in outdoor cellular networks. But I have a feeling that we’ll find ourselves in a 6G war with China before we know it.

Categories
The Industry

The Speed of Thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
The Industry

You Can’t Force Innovation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
The Industry

5G in China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
The Industry

What’s the Best Way to Help Precision Agriculture?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
The Industry

Apple Buys into 5G

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
The Industry

Update on the 5G Race

It’s been a while since I checked in to see how the US is doing in the 5G race. I haven’t been following the issue since before the pandemic when the US government was tossing around the idea of buying a controlling interest in Nokia or Ericsson. That idea went nowhere but led to a lot of articles in the business press.

I decided to look anew after seeing recently that the FCC is estimating that it would cost US carriers about $1.8 billion to replace Huawei and ZTE gear in US networks. In June the FCC banned any proceeds from the Universal Service Fund to be used to buy gear from the Chinese manufacturers. The US has been joined by Australia and the UK in banning purchases of the gear. I’m still scratching my head about the requirement to pull out whatever’s been bought in the past. Network engineers tell me it’s not hard to firewall hardware from communicating with the outside, and nobody has yet shown evidence that any of the gear has been transmitting data to the Chinese. It just feels odd to see a trade dispute taken so far as to toss out working electronics.

The real 5G race isn’t about hardware but in the deployment of 5G technology. The cellular carriers are all now bragging about their 5G cellular networks. It’s an interesting marketing claim because from a standards perspective there isn’t yet any cellular traffic that can legitimately be called 5G. From what I can see, the only feature from the 5G specification that has been introduced into networks so far is dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS). This feature allows cellular carriers to simultaneously use the same block of spectrum for both 4G and 5G. This is mostly a preparatory feature that is readying the network for other 5G features – the carriers don’t want to limit future 5G to a small subset of spectrum.

When the carriers brag about 5G, what they are really talking about is the introduction of new blocks of spectrum. They’ve labeled every new block of spectrum as 5G and labeled every phone that can receive the new blocks of spectrum as 5G phones. For now, these phones are more expensive than phones that use the traditional 4G spectrum.

A recent article by Geoffrey Fowler in the Washington Post looked at the difference in 4G and 5G speeds all around the San Francisco Bay area. He drove around with six phones so that he could check 4G and 5G performance on the various carriers. What he found will surprise nobody who has ponied up for the new phones – 5G is mostly not faster than 4G. There are places where the signals for one or the other sets of spectrum were stronger, but in logging lots of miles, he didn’t find any advantage for the more expensive 5G phones. Fowler followed up with executives at the cellular companies who admitted that 5G is not yet faster today than 4G.

This is not surprising. Most of the carriers are currently using new lower frequency bands in the 5G offering. The main characteristic of lower frequency bands is that the signal travels farther but there are fewer bits transmitted with the signal. I would have guessed that since fewer people using the 5G spectrum bands that 5G phones might still be seeing faster speeds, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

The carriers are getting exactly what they hoped for with the 5G phones – they are moving people off of the crowded 4G spectrum bands that were threatening to collapse under the data loads. But unfortunately, just like happened in the early days of 4G, the network performance from a customer perspective is not living up to the marketing hype.

In terms of the 5G race, the US is far behind the rest of the world in 5G speeds. This is again due to the spectrum being used by US cellular carriers. Many other countries have introduced higher mid-range spectrum that they are labeling as 5G, and that means faster cellular speeds. As an example, the average 5G speed in South Korea is more than twice the 5G speeds being delivered in the US.

However, South Korea also offers a cautionary tale about winning the 5G race. The country has deployed well over half of all of the 5G phones being used in the world. However, the South Korean cellular companies are showing no change in average revenue per user – people are not paying more for the 5G experience. And since the experience isn’t actually 5G – they shouldn’t.

 

Exit mobile version