Is There a Business Case for Fast Cellular?

We’ve gotten a glimpse of the challenges of marketing faster cellular usage since the two major cellular providers in South Korea made a big push in offering ultrafast cellular broadband. South Korea has two primary cellular carriers – SK Telecom and KT – and both have implemented cellular products using millimeter wave spectrum in Seoul and other dense urban areas.

The technology is nearly identical to the technology introduced by Verizon is small sections of major US cities. The technology uses millimeter wave hot spots from small cell sites to beam broadband to phones that are equipped to use the ultra-high spectrum. In South Korea, both companies are selling a millimeter wave spectrum version of the Samsung Gallery. In the US there are still barely any handset options.

5G hotspot data is not the same as traditional cellular data. The small cells blast out gigabit broadband that carries for only short distances of 500 to 800 feet. The signals can bounce off buildings in the right circumstances and can be received sporadically at greater distances from the transmitters. Millimeter wave spectrum won’t pass through any obstacle and the broadband signal reception can be blocked by any obstacle in the environment, including the body of the person using the cellphone.

Even with those limitations, the speeds delivered with this technology are far faster than traditional cellular data speeds. Verizon has reported peak speeds as fast as 600 Mbps in trials being deployed in US cities. That’s an amazing amount of bandwidth to deliver to a cellphone since a cellphone is, by definition a single user device. Since the average 4G LTE data speed is less than 25 Mbps, our cellphone apps are not designed to be bandwidth hogs. Current 4G speeds are more than adequate to stream video, and with the small screens, there’s no benefit to streaming in 4K or even in 1080p. All of the major cellular carriers already chop down the quality of video streams and thus use only a fraction of the bandwidth used to deliver a single video stream to homes. Cellphones are also not designed to multitask and handle multiple simultaneous tasks.

For now, the biggest benefit of millimeter wave spectrum for cellphones looks to be the ability to quickly download big files like movies, apps or software updates. There is certainly an appeal to downloading a big movie to watch later in less than 30 seconds rather than the more normal 10 minutes. But with data caps on even most unlimited plans I have to wonder how many people routinely download big movie files when they aren’t connected to WiFi.

Another way that faster cellular speeds could be beneficial is for faster web browsing. However, the slow cellphone browsing we experience today is not due to 4G LTE speeds, which are adequate for a decent browsing experience. The painfully slow browsing on cellphones is due to operating systems in cellphones that favor display over functionality – the cellular companies have chosen to downplay browsing speed in favor of maximizing the display for phone apps. Faster millimeter wave spectrum won’t overcome this inherent and deliverate software limitation.

There is another use for faster broadband. South Korea likely has a much higher demand for high-speed cellular because the country is game-crazy. A large majority of the population, including adults, are heavily involved in intensive gaming. There is obviously some appeal for having a fast gaming connection when away from a desktop.

South Korean market analysts are looking at the cost of millimeter wave deployment and the potential revenue stream and are already wondering if this is a good investment. SK Telecom expects to have 2 million customers for the faster broadband by the end of this year. In South Korea, sales of millimeter wave spectrum phones are going well. (these can’t be called 5G phones because they don’t handle frequency slicing or the other slew of 5G features that won’t be introduced for at least three more years).

If the analysts in South Korea don’t see the financial benefits, it’s much harder to see the benefits here. Remember that in South Korea that urban homes can already buy gigabit broadband at home for the equivalent of $30 per month. Moreover, the two big ISPs are in the process of upgrading everybody to 10 Gbps within the next five years. This is a country where everybody has been trained to expect an instant response online – and the faster cellular speeds can bring that expected response to mobility.

The business plan here in the US is a lot more challenging. In South Korea, a lot of people live in dense urban city centers unlike our spread-out population with far-stretching suburbs around cities. The network cost to deploy the millimeter wave technology here will be significantly higher to achieve the same kind of coverage seen in South Korea. At least for now, it’s also a lot harder to paint a picture in the US for large numbers of users willing to pay extra for faster cellular data. Several recent surveys indicate that US consumers think faster 5G data speeds should be offered at the same high prices we already pay for cellular broadband (the US has some of the highest cellular data prices among industrial countries).

I can’t see a major play here for ultra-fast cellular broadband outside of dense city centers and perhaps in places like stadiums and convention centers. It’s hard to think that somehow deploying this technology in the suburbs could ever be cost-justified. We are likely to upgrade cellular data to the more normal 5G using mid-range spectrum, and that’s going to nudge cellular data speeds in time up to 100 Mbps. I think most users here will love somewhat faster speeds but won’t be willing to pay extra for them. It’s hard to think that there are enough people in the US willing to pay even more for millimeter wave speeds that can justify the cost of deploying the networks. This is further compounded by the fact that these millimeter wave networks are outdoors only and the spectrum doesn’t penetrate buildings at all. The US has become an indoor society. At least where I live you rarely see teenagers outdoors in their home neighborhood – they are consuming broadband indoors. Does anybody really care about a fast outdoor network?