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.

Technology Predictions

Alexander_Crystal_SeerThroughout history there are examples of people publicly declaring that something wasn’t possible and then a few years later the predicted impossible happened. There are some well-known examples of this in our own industry. Consider the following:

In 1961 Tunis Craven, an FCC Commissioner said, “There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television, or radio service inside the United States.” Four years later the first commercial communications satellite was launched.

In 1878 Sir William Preece, the chief engineer of the British Post Office declared, “The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.”

The same year an internal memo at Western Union opined that, “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”

The famous movie producer Darryl Zanuck was quoted in 1946 as saying, “Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”

In possibly the most famously wrong technology quote Bill Gates said, “We will never make a 32 bit operating system.”

Along the same lines, Ken Olson, the President of Digital Equipment Corporation and a major manufacturer of mainframes said in 1977, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.

Our industry is full of predictions about the future. You always have to wonder which of these predictions will come true and which will prove to be totally wrong. It seems predictions are of two types. Some predictions are made about working technologies that aren’t going to make a dent in the marketplace. Our technology history is full of devices that nobody wanted to buy. But there are also many predictions made, like the examples above, about the limitations of technology and what is possible.

I know that technology improvements have taken me by surprise a few times. If in the early 2000s you would have asked me to predict the top data speeds that could be achieved on telephone copper or on coax I would have underestimated the speeds by a magnitude or more. At that time scientists in the labs all said that there were insurmountable interference issues that made higher frequencies unusable on both kinds of copper.

But some smart scientists doggedly worked on these problems and today we have that is putting gigabit speeds for short distances over telephone copper. And we have the potential for incredibly fast speeds on coax. I’ve witnessed a lab test that put 6 gigabits through a piece of coax.

I make a lot of predictions in this blog. But one thing I’ve learned is that you should never say never when it comes to technology (well, except maybe for tabletop fusion power). Instead predictions are better made talking about the likelihood of something being achieved in the foreseeable future versus the distant future.

A good example of this is gigabit cellular service. Unfortunately some of the press has confused millimeter wave wireless with 5G cellular and there are articles all over the web talking about the coming gigabit cellular service. Is gigabit cellular possible? I would venture to say that in a lab setting with a small number of phones this might be possible today or in the near future.

But there are physics limitations that limit gigabit wireless speeds to short distances and for this technology to ever become pervasive we would have to massively rework all cellular infrastructure to literally surround ourselves with cellular transmitters. It is that limitation that means that this is an extremely unlikely application within any reasonable time frame. It’s certainly possible someday that we might be surrounded by tiny IoT devices that can somehow work as a mesh network to bounce around fast data signals. But there are a whole lot of technology breakthroughs needed first to implement such a technology. So is gigabit wireless possible – I think it is. Will we see it in our lifetimes other than perhaps in a few controlled settings – I predict not. Guess we’ll have to wait to see if I’m right.