Please Stop Hinting at Gigabit Cellular

SONY DSCLast week there were several press releases announcing that AT&T was working with a major corporation to provide a test of 5G technology. A few days later the industry found out that the company taking part in the test is Intel, which will be making the chips involved in the tests. Intel will apparently be beta testing early units for providing high-speed bandwidth at one of their locations.

It really bothers me every time I see one of these announcements, because the whole industry seems to have bought into the hype from companies like AT&T that conflate two totally different technologies under the name of 5G. The AT&T and Intel test is going to be for a technology to provide faster indoor wireless connections using millimeter wave spectrum in competition with WiFi.

But most of the world sees the term ‘5G’ and assumes it means the next generation of cellular technology. And that means that most people reading about the AT&T press release think that we are just a few years away from having gigabit cell phones. And we are not.

I don’t know who decided to use the term 5G for two drastically different technologies. My guess is that the confusion has been purposefully sown by AT&T and Verizon. Certainly the average consumer is more likely to pay attention if they think their cell phones will soon be blazingly fast.

But this kind of confusion has real life negative consequences. Politicians and decision makers read these articles and assume that there is a fast cellular alternative coming in a few years – and this allows them to take the issue of faster landline broadband off the plate. It’s not a hard mistake to make and I’ve even seen this same confusion from smaller telco and cable company owners who see the headlines but don’t dig deeper. I assume one reason this confusion is being promoted is that both AT&T and Verizon benefit if fewer companies are investing in fiber last-mile networks to compete with them.

The millimeter wave technology that Intel is going to alpha test is to provide gigabit speed wireless connections for very short distances. It’s a technology that can distribute gigabit speed connections around an office suite, for example. The gigabit speeds are good for about 60 feet from a transmitter which fits the indoor environment and desire for speed. But even in that environment the technology has a major limitation in that these frequencies won’t pass through almost anything. Even a wall or possibly even a cubicle divider can kill the signal. And so these early tests are probably to find the best way to scatter the bandwidth around the office to reach all the nooks and crannies found in the real world.

This technology is being called 5G because the technology will use the 5G standard, even though that standard is not yet developed. But we already know that the 5G standard will have one major benefit over WiFi. WiFi is a bandwidth sharing protocol which gives equal preference to every transmission. If one WiFi device in an office is demanding a large amount of bandwidth and another data-hungry device comes online the protocol automatically shares the bandwidth between the two devices. 5G will allow the router to guarantee the bandwidth at different levels to each device without sharing.

But this millimeter wave trial at Intel has almost nothing else in common with cellular data transmissions other than the fact that they use the same standard. Cellular networks use much lower frequencies which have been chosen because they travel a decent distance from a cell tower, and for the most part cellular frequencies are good at penetrating walls and trees and other obstacles.

Cellular networks are not going to use millimeter wave frequencies to get to cellphones. To make that work would require mini-cell sites of some sort every hundred feet or so. That can be made to work, but really is a totally impractical application in the real world unless we someday find a way to put little cell sites literally everywhere. Using these frequencies for cellular would be a niche application that might only work in a place like a conference center and the cellphone companies are not going to automatically build this technology into cellphones. It takes chip space, extra power and new antennae to add another frequency and nobody is going to add that extra cost to a cellphone until most of the world can use it – and that literally could take many decades, if ever.

Instead, the 5G standard will be used in cellphones to improve data speeds – but not at anything near to gigabit speeds. The early versions of the 5G specification have a goal of being able to deliver 50 Mbps data speeds to large numbers of phones out of a cell site. That’s a 4 – 5 times increase in cellular speeds from today and is going to make it a lot more enjoyable to browse the web from a cellphone. But 50 Mbps is very different than gigabit cellular speeds. The big companies really need have to stop implying there is going to be gigabit cellular. That is extremely misleading and is very far from the truth.