Introducing 6 GHz into WiFi

WiFi is already the most successful deployment of spectrum ever. In the recent Annual Internet Report, Cisco predicted that by 2022 that WiFi will cross the threshold and will carry more than 50% of global IP traffic. Cisco predicts by 2023 that there will be 628 million WiFi hotspots – most used for home broadband.

These are amazing statistics when you consider that WiFi has been limited to using 70 MHz of spectrum in the 2.4 GHz spectrum band and 500 MHz in the 5 GHz spectrum band. That’s all about to change as two major upgrades are being made to WiFi – the upgrade to WiFi 6 and the integration 6 GHz spectrum into WiFi.

The Impact of WiFi 6. WiFi 6 is the new consumer-friendly name given to the next generation of WiFi technology (replaces the term 802.11ax). Even without the introduction of new spectrum WiFi 6 will significantly improve performance over WiFi 5 (802.11ac).

The problem with current WiFi is congestion. Congestion comes in two ways – from multiple devices trying to use the same router, and from multiple routers trying to use the same channels. My house is probably typical, and we have a few dozen devices that can use the WiFi router. My wife’s Subaru even connects to our network to check for updates every time she pulls into the driveway. With only two of us in the house, we don’t overtax our router – but we can when my daughter is home from college.

Channel congestion is the real culprit in our neighborhood. We live in a moderately dense neighborhood of single-family homes and we can all see multiple WiFi networks. I just looked at my computer and I see 24 other WiFi networks, including the delightfully named ‘More Cowbell’ and ‘Very Secret CIA Network’. All of these networks are using the same small number of channels, and WiFi pauses whenever it sees a demand for bandwidth from any of these networks.

Both kinds of congestion slow down throughput due to the nature of the WiFi specification. The demands for routers and for channels are queued and each device has to wait its turn to transmit or receive data. Theoretically, a WiFi network can transmit data quickly by grabbing a full channel – but that rarely happens. The existing 5 GHz band has six 80-MHz and two 160-MHz channels available. A download of a big file could go quickly if a full channel could be used for the purpose. However, if there are overlapping demands for even a portion of a channel then the whole channel is not assigned for a specific task.

Wi-Fi 6 introduces a few major upgrades in the way that WiFi works to decrease congestion. The first is the introduction of orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA). This technology allows devices to transmit simultaneously rather than wait for a turn in the queue. OFDMA divides channels into smaller sub-channels called resource units. The analogy used in the industry is that this will open WiFi from a single-lane technology to a multi-lane freeway. WiFi 6 also uses other techniques like improved beamforming to make a focused connection to a specific device, which lowers the chances of interference from other devices.

The Impact of 6 GHz. WiFi performance was already getting a lot better due to WiFi 6 technology. Adding the 6 GHz spectrum will drive performance to yet another level. The 6GHz spectrum adds seven 160 MHz channels to the WiFi environment (or alternately adds fifty-nine 20 MHz channels. For the typical WiFi environment, such as a home in an urban setting, this is enough new channels that a big bandwidth demand ought to be able to grab a full 160 MHz channel. This is going to increase the perceived speeds of WiFi routers significantly.

When the extra bandwidth is paired with OFDMA technology, interference ought to be a thing of the past, except perhaps in super-busy environments like a business hotel or a stadium. Undoubtedly, we’ll find ways over the next decade to fill up WiFi 6 routers and we’ll eventually be begging the FCC for even more WiFi spectrum. But for now, this should solve WiFi interference in all but the toughest WiFi environments.

It’s worth a word of caution that this improvement isn’t going to happen overnight. You need both a WiFi 6 router and WiFi-capable devices to take advantage of the new WiFi 6 technology. You’ll also need devices capable of using the 6 GHz spectrum. Unless you’re willing to throw away every WiFi device in your home and start over, it’s going to take most homes years to migrate into the combined benefits of WiFi 6 and 6 GHz spectrum.

Can 5G Replace WiFi?

Verizon recently posted a webcast with investors where Ronan Dunne, EVP and CEO of the Verizon Consumer Group said that he believed that 5G hotspots using millimeter wave spectrum will eventually displace WiFi in homes.

He cites major benefits of 5G over WiFi. He believes that a 5G network will be more reliable and more secure. He thinks that people will value the safety that comes from having traffic inside their home being encrypted as it rides Verizon’s 5G network compared to the more public nature of WiFi where every neighbor can see a home’s WiFi network.

He also cites the convenience of being able to transfer 5G traffic between networks. He paints a picture where a customer making a call or watching a video using a home 5G hotspot will be able to walk out the door and seamlessly continue the session outside on their cellphone. That’s pretty slick stuff should that ever come to pass.

The picture he’s painting for Verizon investors is a future where homes buy a Verizon 5G subscription to use in place of WiFi. This is part of Verizon’s ongoing effort to find a business case for 5G. His vision of the future is possible, but there are a lot of hurdles for Verizon to overcome to achieve that vision.

It’s going to get harder to compete with WiFi since the technology is getting a lot better with two major upgrades. First, the industry has introduced WiFi 6, which brings higher quality performance, lower latency, and faster data rates. WiFi 6 will use techniques like improved beamforming to greatly reduce interference between WiFi uses within the home.

Even more importantly, WiFi will be incorporating the new 6 GHz spectrum band that will increase bandwidth capabilities by adding seven 160 MHz bands and fourteen 80 MHz bands. It will be much easier to put home devices on separate channels when these new channels are added to the existing channels available on 2.4 and 5 GHz. This means that 5G will be competing against a much improved WiFi compared to the technology we all use today.

Another big hurdle for Verizon to overcome is that WiFi is ubiquitous today. WiFi is built into a huge number of devices, and a homeowner might already own a dozen or more devices capable of using WiFi. Verizon will have to somehow convince homeowners that 5G is so superior that it’s worth replacing the panoply of WiFi devices.

Another hurdle is that there is going to be WiFi vendors painting almost the same picture as Verizon. The makers of WiFi routers are already envisioning future devices that will introduce millimeter-wave spectrum including 5G into the home. There are vendors already working on devices that will provide both WiFi 6 and 5G using millimeter-wave connections simultaneously, using the publicly available 60 GHz V band. These solutions envision offering everything that Verizon can do, except the ability to roam seamlessly in and out of a home – and it will be done by selling a box instead of a new monthly subscription.

Another interesting hurdle to switching home networks to 5G is that there might be separate 5G solutions for each cellular carrier that uses different bands of spectrum. It’s relatively easy for device makers today to build a cellphone or other device that can use different cellular carriers because the carriers all use similar spectrum. But as each cellular company picks a different mix of frequencies moving forward, there is likely going to be cellphones and other devices that are specific to one carrier. It’s impossible to build a cellphone with today’s battery technology that can receive a huge range of spectrums – the multiple antenna systems would drain a cellphone dry in no time.

The largest hurdle of all is that WiFi is free to use after buying a WiFi router or meshed WiFi devices for the home. There is no monthly subscription fee to use the wireless WiFi connections within the home. Verizon clearly foresees a world where every home has a new monthly subscription to use its in-home 5G network.

Mr. Dunne makes one good point. It’s becoming increasingly clear that public WiFi networks are susceptible to hacking. A 5G network controlled by a carrier should be a lot safer than a WiFi hotspot managed by a coffee shop. The big question is if this enough incentive for people to buy 5G-capable devices or for coffee shops to switch to 5G networks. Even should coffee shops go with a 5G solution, will homes follow suit?

Mr. Dunne vision has an underlying assumption that people will value data security enough to be willing to pay more for it. He envisions people choosing a managed network when they have a choice. He could be right, and perhaps there will be enough data breaches in coming years with WiFi that the paradigm will change from WiFi to 5G. But it’s going to be incredibly hard to dislodge WiFi, particularly when it’s evolving and improving along with 5G.

Even if Mr. Dunne is right, this shift is not coming soon, probably not within this decade. For now, WiFi has won the device war and any shift to 5G would drag out over many years. It’s going to be incredibly difficult for the cellular carriers to convince everybody to switch to 5G.

I sympathize with Mr. Dunne’s dilemma. Investors want to understand where the revenues will come from to fund the expensive upgrades to 5G. Verizon and the other cellular carriers have tossed out a lot of ideas, but so far none of them have stuck to the wall.  Investors are getting rightfully nervous since there doesn’t appear to be any significant 5G revenues coming in the next few years. The carriers keep painting pictures of an amazing 5G future as a way to not have to talk about lack of 5G revenues today.

We Need Public 5G Spectrum

Last October the FCC issued a Notice for Proposed Rulemaking that proposed expanding WiFi into the 6 GHz band of spectrum (5.925 to 7.125 GHz). WiFi has been a huge economic boon to the country and the FCC recognizes that providing more free public spectrum is a vital piece of the spectrum puzzle. Entrepreneurs have found a myriad of inventive ways to use WiFi that go far beyond what carriers have provided with licensed spectrum.

In much of the country the 6 GHz spectrum is likely to be limited to indoor usage due to possible outdoor interference with Broadcast Auxiliary Service, where remote crews transmit news feeds to radio and TV stations, and Cable Television Relay Service, which cable companies used to transmit data within a cable company. The biggest future needs for WiFi are going to be indoors, so restricting this spectrum to indoor use doesn’t feel like an unreasonable limitation.

However, WiFi has some inherent limitations. The biggest problem with the WiFi standard is that a WiFi network will pause to allow any user to use the bandwidth. In a crowded environment with a lot of devices the constant pausing adds latency and delay in the system, and in heavy-use environments like a business hotel the constant pauses can nearly shut down a WiFi network. Most of us don’t feel that interference today inside our homes, but as we add more and more devices over time, we will recognize the inherent WiFi interference into our network. The place where WiFi interference is already a big concern is in heavy wireless environments like hospitals, factories, airports, business hotels, and convention centers.

Many of our future computing needs are going to require low latency. For instance, creating home holograms from multiple transmitters is going to require timely delivery of packets to each transmitter. Using augmented reality to assist in surgery will require deliver of images in real time. WiFi promises to get better with the introduction of WiFi 6 using the 802.11ax standard, but that new standard does not eliminate the innate limitations of WiFi.

The good news is that we already have a new wireless standard that can create a low-latency dedicated signal paths to users. Fully implemented 5G with frequency slicing can be used to satisfy those situations where WiFi doesn’t meet the need. It’s not hard to picture a future indoor network where a single router can satisfy some user needs using the WiFi standard with other uses satisfied using 5G – the router will choose the best standard to use for a given need.

To some degrees the cellular carriers have this same vision. They talk of 5G being used to take over IoT needs instead of WiFi. They talk about using 5G for low latency uses like augmented reality. But when comparing the history of the cellular networks and WiFi it’s clear that WiFi has been used far more creatively. There are thousands of vendors working in today’s limited WiFi spectrum that have developed a wide array of wireless services. Comparatively, the cellular carriers have been quite vanilla in their use of cellular networks to deliver voice and data.

I have no doubt that AT&T and Verizon have plans to offer million-dollar 5G solutions for smart factories, hospitals, airports and other busy wireless environments. But in doing so they will tap only a tiny fraction of the capability of 5G. If we want 5G to actually meet the high expectations that the industry has established, we ought to create a public swath of spectrum that can use 5G. The FCC could easily empower the use of the 6 GHz spectrum for both WiFi and 5G, and in doing so would unleash wireless entrepreneurs to come up with technologies that haven’t even been imagined.

The current vision of the cellular carriers is to somehow charge everybody a monthly subscription to use 5G – and there will be enough devices using the spectrum that most people will eventually give in and buy the subscription. However, the big carriers are not going to be particularly creative, and instead are likely to be very restrictive on how we use 5G.

The alternate vision is to set aside a decent slice of public spectrum for indoor use of 5G. The public will gain use of the spectrum by buying a 5G router, with no monthly subscription fee – because it’s using public spectrum. After all, 5G is a just standard, developed worldwide and is not the proprietary property of the big cellular companies. Entrepreneurs will jump on the opportunity to develop great uses for the spectrum and the 5G standard. Rather than being held captive by the limited vision of AT&T and Verizon we’d see huge number of devices using 5G creatively. This could truly unleash things like augmented reality and virtual presence. Specialty vendors would develop applications that make great strides in hospital health care. We’d finally see smart shopping holograms in stores.

The public probably doesn’t understand that the FCC has complete authority over how each swath of spectrum is used. Only the FCC can determine which spectrum can or cannot be used for WiFi, 5G and other standards. The choice ought to be an easy one. The FCC can let a handful of cellular companies decide how society will use 5G or they can unleash the creativity of thousands of developers to come up with a myriad of 5G applications. We know that creating public spectrum creates immense societal and economic good. If the FCC hadn’t set aside public spectrum for WiFi we’d all still have wires to all our home broadband devices and many of the things we now take for granted would never have come to pass.

The Resurgence of Wireless Mesh?

I’ve had several calls recently from clients asking about wireless mesh networks. Those that have been in the industry for a while probably remember the mesh network craze in the late 1990s. At that time large cities all over the country considered building WiFi mesh networks to try to bring broadband to everybody in their cities. Many cities deployed pilot systems, but in the end, the technology never panned out. The technology had the squirrely problems often associated with wireless technology and never delivered the bandwidth that the manufacturers promised.

Apparently, the technology is back. I went to the web for a quick investigation, and sure enough there are carrier-class outdoor mesh radios available from a number of different manufacturers. In case you aren’t familiar with the concept of a mesh network, it’s a network comprised of multiple radios, each of which connects to multiple other radios. Most mesh networks are dynamically linked, meaning that the radios work autonomously to find the most efficient routing path for traffic within the mesh. The easiest way to understand this is with this diagram from Cisco, which has been manufacturing mesh network gear for many years. In this diagram each radio interconnects with neighboring radios.

The biggest flaw in the technology two decades ago was that the mesh networks didn’t scale well. This was for two reasons. First, by definition, a wireless link loses half of its bandwidth with every hop to another radio. Mesh networks with too many hops don’t deliver very much bandwidth to the most remote nodes in the network.

Large mesh network also developed an unexpected problem. One of the characteristics of a mesh network is that the radios constantly coordinate with each other. If a given node is temporarily overloaded with a big bandwidth demand from an end user, the network dynamically routes other traffic around the bottleneck. Unfortunately, it turned out that in large networks the radios spent a majority of the bandwidth communicating with each other at the expense of the bandwidth left for end users. As mesh network grew in size the amount of bandwidth throughput decreased significantly. Technicians determined that this excess internode chatter could be reduced by limiting the number of nodes that any radio could communicate with, but in doing so the network was no longer a real mesh.

The other big problem in the 1990s is that the networks were deployed as outdoor radios, meaning that very little bandwidth actually made it into homes. I remember working one day at a client where I could see a nearby mesh radio through a window. As long as I sat where I had a direct line of sight to the radio I could use the WiFi, but if I moved to another part of the room the signal completely died. Broadcasting WiFi with outside radios is an inefficient way to provide bandwidth indoors.

Those inherent problems are still an issue today. There is no way to eliminate the issue of the bandwidth decreasing with each hop. However, the difference from today and the 19990s is that we can feed a mesh network with gigabits of broadband instead of with a few T1s. To some degree, that means that we can overpower the system so that at least some bandwidth makes it to the furthest nodes in the network.

One of the other weaknesses of a mesh network is that most networks use WiFi spectrum. Practically every wired home uses WiFi today to move bandwidth around the house. Superimposing a mesh WiFi network in a neighborhood means a lot more high-power WiFi sources to cause interference with every other WiFi device. Anybody who has ever tried to maintain a WiFi signal in a crowded business hotel understands the issues with WiFi interference.

Even with those limitations, I can see some great uses for a mesh network. The vendors are pushing the technology as a way to bring bandwidth more easily to outdoor spaces like parks. There is a brand of outdoor mesh devices being marketed as a way to spread WiFi around a farmhouse to the outdoor buildings. While nobody seems to be marketing the idea yet, a mesh network might be a good way to spread WiFi signals to fields and pastures to track the small bandwidth sensors being used to collect data from fields and herds.

What my clients really wanted to know is if a mesh network could be used to provide residential broadband. There might be situations where this makes sense. Rather than trying to beam the bandwidth from outside hotspots, each radio could feed a wire into a home. But mesh networks still have the same inherent problems as in the past and in most cases other solutions can probably produce faster and more consistent bandwidth. As a consultant I always have an open mind, but having seen the technology crash and burn once before I’d want to see this in practice before buying the resurgence of the technology again.

5G and Home IoT

I’ve been asked a lot recently about the potential future of 5G – everybody in the industry wants to understand the potential threat from 5G. One of the biggest proposed uses for 5G is to connect IoT devices to the cloud. Today I’m going to look at what that might mean.

It’s clear that 5G cellular will be the choice for connecting to outdoor IoT sensors. Sensors for farm equipment in rural areas or for outdoor weather and traffic sensors in urban areas are going to most easily handled by 5G cellular since the technology will eventually be everywhere. 5G is particularly suited for serving IoT devices due to frequency slicing where just the right amount of bandwidth, large or small, can be allocated to each small outdoor sensor. 5G has another interesting feature that will allow it to poll sensors on a pre-set schedule rather than have the sensor constantly trying to constantly connect – which will reduce power consumption at the sensor.

It’s clear that the cellular carriers also have their eye on indoor IoT devices. It’s harder to say that 5G will win this battle because today almost all indoor devices are connected using WiFi.

There are a couple of different 5G applications that might work in the indoor environment. The cellular carriers are going to make a pitch to be the technology of choice to connect small inside devices. In my home I can get a good cellular signal everywhere except in the old underground basement. There is no question that cellular signal from outside the home could be used to connect to many of the smaller bandwidth applications within the home. I can’t see any technical reason that devices like my Amazon Echo or smart appliances couldn’t connect to 5G instead of WiFi.

But 5G cellular has a number of hurdles issues to overcome to break into this market. I’m always going to have a wired broadband connection to my home, and as long as that connection comes from somebody other than one of the big cellular carriers I’m not going to want to use 5G if that means paying for another monthly subscription to a cellular provider. I’d much rather have my inside devices connected to the current broadband connection. I also want all of my devices on the same network for easy management. I want to use one hub to control smart light switches or other devices and want everything on the same wireless network. That means I don’t want some devices on WiFi and others on cellular.

One of the sales pitches for 5G is that it will be able to easily accommodate large numbers of IoT connections. Looking into the future there might come a time when there are a hundred or more smart devices in the house. It’s not that hard to picture the Jetson’s house where window shades change automatically to collect or block sunlight, where music plays automatically when I enter a room, where my coffee is automatically ready for me when I get out of bed in the morning. These things can be done today with a lot of effort, but with enough smart devices in a home these functions will probably eventually become mainstream.

One of the limitations of WiFi today is that it degrades in a busy environment. A WiFi network pauses each time it gets a new request for a connection, which is the primary reason it’s so hard to keep a good connection in a busy hotel or convention center.

However, the next generation with WiFi 6 is already anticipating these needs in the home. WiFi can adopt the same frequency slicing used by 5G so that only a small portion of a channel can be used to connect to a given device. Events can be scheduled on WiFi so that the network only polls certain sensors only periodically. The WiFi network might only interact with the smart coffee pot or the smart window shades when something needs to be done, rather than maintaining a constantly open channel. It’s likely that the next iterations of WiFi will become nearly as good as 5G for these functions within a closed home environment.

There is an even better solution that is also being discussed. There’s no reason that indoor routers can’t be built that use both WiFi and 5G frequencies. While the cellular companies are gobbling up millimeter wave spectrum, as long as there is an unlicensed slice of spectrum set aside for public use it will be possible to deploy both WiFi on mid-range frequencies and 5G on millimeter wave frequencies at the same time. This would blend the benefits of both technologies. It might mean using WiFi to control the smart coffee pot and indoor 5G to connect to the smart TV.

Unfortunately for the cellular carriers, these duel-function routers won’t need them. The same companies that make WiFi routers today can make combination 5G / WiFi routers that work with the full range of unlicensed spectrum – meaning no revenue opportunity for the cellular carriers. When I look at all of the issues I have a hard time seeing 5G cellular becoming a preferred technology within the home.

 

5G vs. WiFi

The big cellular carriers envision a future where every smart device is connected to their cellular networks rather than to WiFi. They envision every home having to pay a monthly subscription to maintain connectivity for their wired devices. They envision every new car and truck coming with a subscription to cellular service.

I notice that the cellular providers talk about generating IoT revenues, but they’re never specific that the real vision is for everybody to buy additional cellular subscriptions. Most IoT applications will be low-bandwidth yet the carriers have been spreading the false message that 5G is all about faster broadband. I just saw another ludicrous article yesterday predicting how 5G was going to bring mobile gigabit broadband to rural America – a pure fantasy that is being fed by the public relations machines at Verizon and AT&T.

We aren’t seeing much press about the most important aspect of the new 5G specifications – that each cell site will be able to make up to 100,000 simultaneous connections. This isn’t being done for cellphones. It’s rare these days except in a few over-crowded places for a cellular call not to be connected. Placing a few small cell sites at the busiest places in most cities could solve most cellular bottlenecks without an upgrade to 5G.

The 100,000 connections give the wireless carriers the tool that can make a connection to every smart TV, smart washer and dryer, home video camera, burglar alarm sensor and every other wired device in a home. The big carriers are launching a direct challenge to WiFi as the wireless technology of choice for connecting our devices.

AT&T and Verizon envision every home having a new $10, $20 or $30 subscription to keep all of the devices connected. They also envision becoming the repository of all IoT data – moving them in front of Google and others in the chase for collecting the big data that drives advertising revenues. This is something they definitely don’t talk about.

It doesn’t take much of a thought exercise to understand that 5G is not about faster cellular service. Cellular subscribers will gladly take faster cellular broadband, but they probably aren’t willing to pay more for it. T-Mobile is already making that clear by announcing that they won’t charge more for 5G. The carriers are not going to spend tens of billions to implement 5G cellular technology that doesn’t drive the new revenues needed to pay for it. 5G is about IoT, plain and simple.

Today all of our home devices use WiFi. While WiFi is far from perfect, it seems to do an adequate job in connecting to the video camera at the front door, the smart TV, and the sensors in various appliances and devices around the home. WiFi has a few major advantages over cellular broadband – it’s already in our homes and connected to our devices and doesn’t require an additional monthly subscription.

I think people will resist another forced subscription. HP recently reported that the vast majority of their customers that buy 4G LTE-enabled laptops disable the cellular connection almost as soon as the new computer is out of the box. In this day of cellphones, very few car owners sign-up for the cellular subscription for OnStar when the free trial expires. I know that I personally would not buy a home device that eventually needed another cellular subscription to function.

The cellular carriers make a valid point in saying that WiFi is already growing inadequate for busy homes. But there are already short-term and long-term fixes on the way. The short-term fix is the upcoming migration to WiFi 6 using the 802.11ax standard. The new WiFi will better use MIMO antennas, frequency slicing and other techniques to allow for prioritization of devices and a more reliable connection to multiple devices.

The ultimate indoor broadband network will be a combination of WiFi and millimeter wave, or even faster spectrum. Higher frequency spectrum could provide bandwidth for the devices that use big bandwidth while keeping other devices on mid-range spectrum WiFi – getting the best from both sets of spectrum. That combination will allow for the easy integration, without interference for the connection of gigabit devices and also of tiny sensors that only communicate sporadically.

This is not the future that AT&T and Verizon want, because this is a world controlled by consumers who buy the wireless boxes that best suit them. I envision a future indoor-only wireless network that won’t require licensed spectrum or a cellular subscription since the millimeter waves and other higher frequencies won’t pass outdoors through walls.

The cellular carriers will have a monopoly on the outdoor sensor market. They will undoubtedly make the connections to smart cars, to smart agriculture, and to outdoor smart city sensors. But I think they will have a huge uphill battle convincing households to pay another monthly subscription for something that can be done better using a few well-placed routers.

Private 5G Networks

One of the emerging uses for 5G is to create private 5G cellular networks for large businesses. The best candidates for 5G technology are businesses that need to connect and control a lot of devices or those that need the low latency promised by the 5G standards. This might include businesses like robotized factories, chemical plants, busy shipping ports and airports.

5G has some advantages over other technologies like WiFi, 4G LTE and Ethernet that makes it ideal for communications rich environments. Cellular network can replace the costly and bulky hard-wired networks needed for Ethernet. It’s not practical to wire an Ethernet network to the hordes of tiny IoT sensors that are needed to operate a modern manufacturing factory. It’s also not practical to have a hard-wired network in a dynamic environment where equipment needs to be moved for various purposes.

5G holds a number of advantages over WiFi and 4G. Frequency slicing means that just the right amount of bandwidth can be delivered to every device in the factory, from the smallest sensor to devices that must upload or download large amounts of data. The 5G standard also allows for setting priorities by device so that mission critical devices always get priority over background devices. The low latency on 5G means that there can be real time coordination and feedback between devices when that’s needed for time-critical manufacturing devices. 5G also offers the ability to communicate simultaneously with a huge number of devices, something that is not practical or possible with WiFi or LTE.

Any discussion of IoT in the past has generally evoked discussion of factories with huge number of tiny sensors that monitor and control every aspect of the manufacturing process. While there have been big strides in developing robotized factories, that concept of a concentrated communications mesh to control the factories has not been possible until the 5G standard.

We are a few years away from having 5G networks that can deliver on all of the promised benefits of the standard. The big telecom manufacturers like Ericsson, Huawei, Qualcomm and Nokia along with numerous smaller companies are working on perfecting the technology and the devices that will support advanced IoT networks.

I read that an Audi plant in Germany is already experimenting with a private cellular network to control the robots that glue car components together. Its robot networks were hard-wired and were not providing fast enough feedback to the robots for the needed precision of the tasks. The company says it’s pleased with the performance so far. However, that test was not yet real 5G and any real use of 5G in factories is still a few years off as manufacturers perfect the wireless technology and perfect the sensor networks.

Probably the biggest challenge in the US will be finding the spectrum to make this work. In the US most of the spectrum that is best suited to operating a 5G factory are sold in huge geographic footprints and the spectrum will be owned by the typical large spectrum holders. Large factory owners might agree to lease spectrum from the large carriers, but they are not going to want those carriers to insert themselves into the design or operation of these complex networks.

In Europe there are already discussions at the various regulatory bodies on possibly setting aside spectrum for factories and other large private users. However, in this country to do so means opening the door to allowing the spectrum to be sold for smaller footprints – something the large wireless carriers would surely challenge. It would be somewhat ironic if the US takes the lead in developing 5G technology but then can’t make it work in factories due to our spectrum allocation policies.

Femtocells Instead of Small Cells?

I have just seen the future of broadband and it does not consist of building millions of small 5G cell sites on poles. CableLabs has developed a femtocell technology that might already have made the outdoor 5G small cell site technology obsolete. Femtocells have been around for many years and have been deployed in rural areas to provide a connection to the cellular network through a landline broadband connection. That need has largely evaporated due the ability to use cellphones apps to directly make WiFi calls.

The concept of a femtocell is simple – it’s a small box that uses cellular frequencies to communicate with cellular devices that then hands-off calls to a landline data connection. Functionally a femtocell is a tiny cell site that can handle a relatively small volume of cellular calls simultaneously.

According to CableLabs, deploying a femtocell inside a household is far more efficient that trying to communicate with the household from a nearby pole-mounted transmitter. Femtocells eliminate one of the biggest weaknesses of outdoor small cell sites – much of the power of 5G is lost in passing through the external walls of a home. Deploying the cellular signal from within the house means a much stronger 5G signal throughout a home, allowing for more robust 5G applications.

This creates what I think is the ultimate broadband network – one that combines the advantages of a powerful landline data pipe combined with both 5G and WiFi wireless delivery within a home. This is the vision I’ve had for over a decade as the ultimate network – big landline data pipe last mile and powerful wireless networks for connecting to devices.

It’s fairly obvious that a hybrid femtocell / WiFi network has a huge cost advantage over the deployment of outdoor small cell sites on poles. It would eliminate the need for the expensive pole-mounted transmitters – and that would eliminate the battles we’re having about the proliferation of wireless devices. It’s also more efficient to deploy a femtocell network – you would deploy only to those homes that want to the 5G features – meaning you don’t waste an expensive outdoor network to get to one or two customers. It’s not hard to picture an integrated box that has both a WiFi modem and a cellular femtocell, meaning the cost to get 5G into the home would be a relatively cheap upgrade to WiFi routers rather than deploying a whole new separate 5G network.

There are significant benefits for a home to operate both 5G and WiFi. Each standard has advantages in certain situations within the home. As much as we love WiFi, it has big inherent weaknesses.  WiFi networks bogs down, by definition, when there too many devices calling for a connection. Shuttling some devices in the home to 5G would reduce WiFi collisions and makes WiFi better.

5G also has inherent advantages. An in-home 5G network could use frequency slicing to deliver exactly the right amount of bandwidth to devices. It’s not hard to picture a network where 5G is used to communicate with cellphones and small sensors of various types while WiFi is reserved for communicating with large bandwidth devices like TVs and computers.

One huge advantage of a femtocell network is that it could be deployed anywhere. The cellular companies are likely to cherry pick the outdoor 5G network deployments only to neighborhoods where the cost of backhaul is affordable – meaning that many neighborhoods will never get 5G just like many neighborhoods in the northeast never got Verizon FiOS. You could deploy a hybrid femtocell to one customer on a block and still be profitable. Femtocells also eliminate the problems of homes that won’t have line-of-sight to a pole-mounted network.

This technology obviously favors those who have built fast broadband – that’s cable companies that have upgraded to DOCSIS 3.1 and fiber overbuilders. For those businesses this is an exciting new product and another new revenue stream to help replace shrinking cable TV and telephone networks.

One issue that would need to be solved is spectrum, since most of it is licensed to cellular companies. The big cable companies now own some spectrum, but smaller cable companies and fiber overbuilders own none. There is no particular reason why 5G inside a home couldn’t coexist with WiFi, with both using unlicensed spectrum, with some channels dedicated to each wireless technology. That would become even easier if the FCC goes through with plans to release 6 GHz spectrum as the next unlicensed band. The femtocell network could also utilize unlicensed millimeter wave frequency.

We’ll obviously continue to need outdoor cellular networks to accommodate roaming voice and data roaming, but these are already in place today. Rather than spend tens of billions to upgrade those networks for 5G data to homes, far less expensive upgrades can be made to augment those networks only where needed rather than putting multiple small cells on every city block.

It’s been my experience over forty years of watching the industry that in the long run the most efficient technology usually wins. If CableLabs develops the right home boxes for this technology, then the cable companies will be able blitz the market with 5G much faster, and for a far lower cost than Verizon or AT&T.

It would be ironic if the best 5G solution also happens to need the fastest pipe into the home. The decisions by big telcos to not deploy fiber over the last few decades might start looking like a huge tactical blunder. It looks to me like CableLabs and the cable companies might have found the winning 5G solution for residential service.

Why I Am Thankful – 2018

It’s Thanksgiving again and I take a pause every year to look at the positive events and trends for the small ISP industry. This year was challenging in some ways because we have a current FCC that clearly favors the giant ISPs over the rest of the industry. But there are still a lot of things to be grateful for here at the end of 2018.

Local Governments Opening the Purse Strings. Local governments are listening to their constituents who are demanding broadband, and a surprising number of local communities are finding ways to help pay for broadband networks. In Minnesota alone there are a dozen counties that have agreed to make million dollar plus contributions to help fund local broadband efforts. These are de facto public-private partnerships with small telcos and rural cooperatives using that public funding to help bring broadband to rural areas.

Electric Cooperatives Have Awoken. All over the country we see electric cooperatives planning to bring broadband to their members. These cooperatives own electric grids in many of the same rural places that don’t have broadband. With existing pole lines and rights-of-way these cooperatives have a natural advantage for stringing fiber, particularly if they put the cabling into the electric space on poles and avoid costly make-ready. The coops also enjoy the natural advantage of being customer-owned and customer friendly, meaning that they are likely to see far higher penetration rates than an outside commercial operator building a broadband network.

We Finally Have the Next Big Product. I know numerous small ISPs who have seen instant success selling managed WiFi. I have clients that have achieved penetration rates north of 50% in just one year for the new product (and a few considerably higher than that). Bigger bandwidth requires an efficient and effective WiFi network and customers seem to be glad to have their ISP make this work for them.

Politicians Outside of Washington DC Get It. State legislatures all over the country are listening to constituents and are creating state broadband grant programs. Many of them are doing it the smart way and are mimicking successful grant programs like the one in Minnesota. The grant programs are coming from both red and blue states, demonstrating that broadband is not a partisan issue – almost all of rural America needs better broadband and state legislators are listening to their voters. Federal politics continue to be mired in partisan infighting and we probably won’t see anything out of them for the next few years.

FCC Holds out Possibility of New Spectrum. For the most part the FCC has been giving spectrum to the 5G industry and has not been creative in finding ways to also use spectrum to help solve the rural broadband gap. However, the FCC is looking at spectrum that would significantly benefit rural broadband. Of massive importance is the 6 GHz band being considered as the next swath of WiFi. This would double the amount of mid-range spectrum available for WiFi. The FCC is also considering other frequencies such as C-Band spectrum between 3.7GHz to 4.2 GHz. There are proposals in front of the agency to allow for 5G use in urban areas while allowing use for broadband in rural areas. The FCC may yet give this all to 5G carriers, but there are reasonable ways to share most bands of frequency to benefit both urban 5G and rural broadband.

Urban Broadband Speeds Improving. The big cable companies have unilaterally improved broadband speeds in urban areas, increasing the speed for their base products to between 100 Mbps and 200 Mbps. You might ask how this benefits rural ISPs. The increases in speed are in response to demands from customers, and the cable companies are redefining acceptable broadband – something the FCC is never going to be realistic about. These new urban speeds were easily predictable by anybody that understand that customer demand for broadband speed and total downloads has continued to double ever three years. Fast urban broadband resets the expectation for acceptable rural broadband.

The Big Telcos are Walking Away from Rural America. This has actually been quietly happening for decades as the big telcos have refused to invest in their rural networks. CenturyLink made it clear in 2018 that they are no longer interested in ‘infrastructure returns’ like what is earned on last-mile networks. They now join Verizon, which has been furiously selling rural properties and AT&T that keeps pestering the FCC to tear down rural copper. The door is open even wider for those ISPs that want to fill the broadband gaps.

FCC Proposes New WiFi Spectrum

At their recent open meeting the FCC announced that it is proposing to use up to 1,200 megahertz of the spectrum band between 5.925 GHz and 7.125 GHz (being referred to as the 6 GHz band) as unlicensed spectrum. This is a bold proposal and more than doubles the total amount of bandwidth that would be available for WiFi.

However, their proposal comes with several proposed caveats that will have to be considered before expecting the spectrum to be useful everywhere for rural broadband. First, the FCC proposal is that any place where the spectrum is currently being used for Broadcast Auxiliary Service and Cable TV Relay service that the spectrum only be licensed for indoor use.

In those places where the spectrum is being used heavily for point-to-point microwave service, the outdoor use would have to be coordinated with existing users by use of an automated frequency coordination system, or a database, that would ensure no interference. I assume one of the rules that must be clarified is a definition of what constitutes ‘heavy’ existing point-to-point use of the spectrum.

In places where there are no existing uses of the spectrum it sounds like it would be available for outdoor use as well as indoor use.

This band of spectrum would be a great addition to networks that provide point-to-multipoint fixed wireless service. The spectrum will have a slightly smaller effective delivery area than the 5.8 GHz WiFi ISM band now widely in use. The 5.8 GHz spectrum is already the workhorse in most fixed wireless networks and adding additional spectrum would increase the bandwidth that can be delivered to a given customer in systems that can combine spectrum from various frequencies.

The key is going to be to find out what the two restrictions mean in the real world and how many places are going to have partial or total restrictions of the spectrum. Hopefully the FCC will produce maps or databases that document the areas they think are restricted using their two proposed criteria.

This spectrum would also be welcome indoors and would add more channels for home WiFi routers, making it easier to cover a home and provide coverage to greater numbers of devices simultaneously. The FCC hopes the spectrum can be used everywhere for indoor use, but they are asking the industry if that causes any problems.

Note that this is not an order, but a proposal. The FCC released a draft of the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on October 2, and after this vote they should soon publish a schedule for a public comment period from the industry and other interested parties.

WiFi has been a gigantic boon to the economy and it’s a great move by the FCC to provide additional WiFi spectrum, even if this turns out to be largely restricted to indoor use. However, everybody associated with rural broadband is going to hope this is decided soon and that the frequency is added to the toolbox for serving fixed wireless in rural areas.

Interestingly, this spectrum would make it easier for ISPs that claimed they can achieve universal 100 Mbps speeds for fixed wireless in the recent reverse CAF II auctions. Perhaps some of those companies were counting on this spectrum as a way to meet that claim.

It’s always hard to predict the speed of the FCC process. I see that various WiFi-related organizations are hoping this means use of the spectrum as early as sometime next year. However, we’ve often seen the FCC proceed a lot slower than what the industry wants and one of factors the FCC is going to take into consideration is the pushback from cellular companies that will likely want this to be licensed spectrum. Unfortunately, the large cellular companies seem to be getting everything on their wish list from this FCC, so we’ll have to see how that plays out.

I imagine that device manufacturers are already considering this in the design of new hardware, but still need to know more before finalizing software. This is perhaps the best announcement so far from this FCC. The benefit to the country from WiFi is gigantic and this will vastly strengthen the advantages of WiFi.