A Deeper Look at 5G

The consulting firm Bain & Company recently looked at the market potential for 5G. They concluded that there is an immediate business case to be made for 5G deployment. They go on to conclude that 5G ‘pessimists’ are wrong. I count myself as a 5G pessimist, but I admit that I look at 5G mostly from the perspective of the ability of 5G to bring better broadband to small towns and rural America. I agree with most of what Bain says, but I take the same facts and am still skeptical.

Bain says that the most immediate use for 5G deployment is in urban areas. They cite an interesting statistic I’ve never seen before that says that it will cost $15,000 – $20,000 to upgrade an existing cell site with 5G, but will cost between $65,000 and $100,000 to deploy a new 5G node. Until the cost for new 5G cell sites comes way down it’s going to be hard for anybody to justify deploying new 5G cell sites except in those places that have potential business to support the high investment cost.

Bain recommends that carriers should deploy 5G quickly in those places where it’s affordable in order to be the first to market with the new technology. Bain also recommends that cellular carriers take advantage of improved mobile performance, but also look at hard at the fixed 5G opportunities to deliver last mile broadband. They say that an operator that maximizes both opportunities should be able to see a fast payback.

A 5G network deployed on existing cell towers is going to create small circles of prospective residential broadband customers – and that circle isn’t going to be very big. Delivering significant broadband would mean small circles delivering broadband for 1000 to 1,500 feet from a transmitter. Cell towers today are much farther apart than those distances, and this means a 5G delivery map consisting of scattered small circles.

There are not many carriers willing to tackle that business plan. It means selectively marketing only to those households within range of a 5G cell site. AT&T is the only major ISP that already uses this business plan. AT&T currently offers fiber to any homes or businesses close to their numerous fiber nodes. They could use that same sales plan to sell fixed broadband to customers close to each 5G cell site. However, AT&T has said that, at least for now, they don’t see a business case for 5G similar to their fiber roll-out.

Verizon could do this, but they have been walking away from a lot of their residential broadband opportunities, going so far as to sell a lot of their fiber FiOS customers to Frontier. Vericaon says they will deploy 5G in several cities starting next year but has never talked about the number of potential households they might cover. This would require a major product roll-out for T-Mobile or Sprint, but in the document they filed with FCC to support their merger they said they would tackle this market. Both companies currently don’t have the fleet of needed technicians or the backoffice ready to support the fixed residential broadband market.

The report skims past the the question of the availability of 5G technology. Like any new technology the first few generations of field equipment are going to have problems. Most players in the industry have learned the lesson of not widely deploying any new technology until it’s well-proven in the field. Verizon says their early field trials have gone well and we’ll have to wait until next year to see how 5G they are ready to deploy with first generation technology.

Bain also says there should be no ‘surge’ in capital expenditures if companies deploy 5G wisely – but the reverse is also true, and bringing 5G small cells to places without current fiber is going to be capital intensive. I agree with Bain that, technology concerns aside, that the only place where 5G makes sense for the next few years is urban areas and mostly on existing cell sites.

I remain a pessimist of 5G being feasible in more rural areas. The cost of the electronics will need to drop to a fraction of today’s cost. There are going to always be pole issues for deploying smaller cells in rural America – even should regulators streamline the hanging of small cell sites, those 5G devices can’t be placed onto the short poles we often see in rural America. While small circles of broadband delivery might support an urban business model, the low density in rural America might never make economic sense.

I certainly could be wrong, but I don’t see any companies sinking huge amounts of money into 5G deployments until the technology has been field-proven and until the cost of the technology drops and stabilizes. I hope I am proven wrong and that somebody eventually finds a version of the technology that will benefit rural America – but I’m not going to believe it until I can kick the tires.