5G Wireless: Reality vs. Hype

Fifth Generation (5G) wireless is coming.   We try to cut through the hype and offer a realistic picture of what 5G will actually mean to you this year….and in coming years.   Spectrum geeks may have caught Olympics 5G demos of such things as live-streaming virtual reality of bobsled and luge runs, putting the viewer in the breathtaking driver’s seat, and a test drive earlier this month from Seoul to Pyeongchang, a journey of several hours, without any human intervention whatsoever at the car’s controls. The demonstrations in Pyeongchang are just an appetizer to this very enticing wireless dinner.  It looks appetizing yet the expected hype is exactly what it is: hype.   Yes, 5G will be deployed in 2018, but only in a few cities.   Yes, 5G will conceptually offer speeds that could compete with cable internet, but the speeds won’t be as fast as the 100mbs that most Internet providers are offering.   Moreover, AT&T and Verizon wireless aren’t about to compete with their wireline carrier services.  If you recall LTE deployment earlier this decade, it took U.S. operators several years before they had near-nationwide coverage. And because of spectrum limitations, 5G for many operators could take even longer to build a nationwide footprint than it did for LTE.

Make no mistake that 5G is a big deal.   It offers a significant improvement in wireless networks including, but not limited to: Faster speeds (offering speeds up to 20Gbps); Reduced latency (less than 1millisecond);  Higher density (1000x more connections and traffic/km2); Increased flexibility (usable spectrum, mix of connection types, low power, etc.); and lower costs for deployment.  It opens the door to more competitors entering the mobile wireless business and perhaps take a run at challenging cable Internet providers.  Expect numerous stories about about 20 Gbps handsets with imperceptible latency, use in self-driving cars, and the promise of IoT finally coming to fruition.  Unfortunately, that’s also mostly hype. So what can we really expect from 5G?

  • Don’t expect home or business internet alternatives before 2025.  Fixed wireless (the use of 5G to offer Internet service to homes/businesses) may be deployed used in certain places that don’t have cable Internet service, but it isn’t expected displace fiber or cable in most U.S. citites.  One of the big limiters is that 5G small cells will need fiber backhaul that is expensive and in limited supply.   It’s little secret that Google seriously explored using 5G for a fixed wireless offering and then backed off once it crunched the numbers.  It is going to take a fair amount of time before 5G deployment offers fixed wireless services that compete with the wireline carrier.
  • It will boost personal assistant devices.   Cloud based companies who offer AI-powered applications  (think Google, Amazon, Apple & Microsoft) will seize upon 5G speed and reliability to offer more AI services while collecting vastly larger data sets from which to learn. Personal assistants will be more available and far more responsive.
  • Deployment of mobile 5G service will be slow.  Sure, lots of carriers are promoting 5G deployment but actual deployment is happening far too slowly for most consumers.   AT&T plans to offer “mobile” 5G in a dozen cities this year, including Atlanta, Dallas and Waco, Texas. This year mobile will likely be limited to a mobile hotspot rather than phones. However, AT&T says it’s starting, not stopping, with a hotspot and will likely have phones in the first half of next year.  Verizon plans to have 5G service in at least 5 cities this year, but it’ll be deploying fixed wireless service in areas that it currently doesn’t offer wireline service.  Sprint and T-Mobile are talking, but not actually deploying, 5G in any identified localities.
  • 5G may be more useful to IoT than to households.  Initial deployment will be targeted at the internet of things (IoT), which is the interconnection of everyday devices to the internet. There are expected to be close to 30 billion connected IoT devices in use by the time 5G could roll out in 2021. (e.g. fitness trackers, cameras, door locks, thermostats, and self-driving vehicles) However, this also includes connectivity of infrastructure unlike ever before and there will be lots of glitches and bugs standing in the way — especially security-related ones.  Hackers are already drooling over the potential for exploitation.   Expect to see initial 5G services focused on infrastructure investments by cities and states, such as the real-time monitoring of traffic lights, police surveillance, smart parking, and toll roads. All such connected devices will be gathering data, transmitting it, and allowing for the data to be analyzed.

So, while it is worth getting excited about 5G, that thrill is about all you can expect in the next two years.   There’ll be a lot of activity behind the scenes before 5G becomes a reality for U.S. consumers.  Of greater interest to us is the prospect for low-cost broadband satellite service.   SpaceX intends to create a constellation of satellites known as Starlink that would provide broadband internet access and eventually consist of thousands of satellites.   SpaceX eventually wants to put more than 10,000 tiny satellites into Low-Earth Orbit. The satellites will whisk around the planet about 335 km (208 miles) to 1,325 km (823 miles) above the Earth’s surface.  SpaceX projected the satellite-internet business would have over 40 million subscribers and bring in more than $30 billion in revenue by 2025.  These numbers come from Space X owner Elon Musk, so they have some cred.   Space X plans to offer broadband this year in in Hawthorne and Fremont in California; McGregor and Brownsville, Texas; and Redmond, Wash.

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