Nathan Rosenberg, Jr.

The 5G Future: Hype and Reality

The wonders of 5G are coming, at least according to wireless equipment and service providers. 5G is the fifth-generation wireless technology that promises to dramatically increase Internet speeds and enable new applications, including autonomous vehicles and virtual reality. If you know little else about 5G, you are not alone. What is the hype, and what is the reality?

Hype: 5G Is Here!
Reality: There Is No 5G Standard Yet

While carriers have begun 5G tests and trials, as of today, there is no fifth-generation wireless standard. There are many conceptual ideas about what 5G will be. Wireless carriers say that 5G will be 5-10X faster than 4G LTE, enabling new applications and services, including autonomous vehicles, virtual reality and augmented reality.

All four major carriers have said that they will have 5G service by 2020. Verizon has begun trials in Sacramento to provide home Internet over 5G wireless while AT&T is building out 5G services in 12 cities this year. Even cable companies like Comcast and Spectrum have begun to enter the mobile market.

Despite all the hype, though, 5G has not even been defined yet. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) began work on the 5G standard in 2014 but does not expect to complete its work until 2020. What 5G means has not yet been determined.

Hype: 5G Will Replace Wired Internet
Reality: 5G Will Require More Fiber Internet than Ever

Verizon’s initial 5G markets will provide home Internet, not service to mobile devices, causing many to wonder if 5G will replace landline Internet. While devices are increasingly wireless, new 5G networks will require more landline Internet, not less.

5G wireless towers are just like the WiFi in the home: they require a wired Internet connection. In fact, neighborhoods with fiber-optic connectivity (as opposed to coax cable or DSL) will likely have 5G coverage first. AT&T Communications CEO John Donovan recently said as much: “A lot of the business case on 5G is going to be how dense is your fiber network.” Current estimates are that each tower will require a 1 Tbps (1000 Gbps) Internet.

Hype: 5G Will Improve Coverage and Reliability
Reality: 5G Spectrum Does Not Do Well Indoors and Will Require Many More Towers

One of the biggest expected benefits of 5G is improved coverage and reliability—eventually. 5G’s greater radio frequencies that it uses can carry much higher band-width data connections than 4G or 3G, but all that bandwidth has a cost: 5G signals do not travel very far, and they can be blocked by buildings, landscaping or even rain. To compensate, 5G will likely use all available radio spectrum, improving reliability. However, such reliability will only come once 5G networks are fully built out.

Most of the network buildout for 5G is expected to come in the form of small cells mounted on street lights and buildings. Small cells are not a new technology, but the expansion of small cells needed for 5G is staggering. Today, small cells are used to beef up 4G coverage in downtown cores, shopping centers, arenas and stadiums. American Tower, one of the U.S.’s largest cellular tower owners, estimates that American cities will need 10X to 100X more antenna locations for 5G. Without sufficient small cells (and fiber, as previously mentioned), many areas will lack 5G coverage.

Complicating matters, most 4G cell towers are built on private land, but many 5G small cells will likely be built on public right of ways. Today, tower companies are signing contracts with utilities and municipalities for access to utility poles and streetlights for small cells. Most municipalities are inexperienced in handling the scale of applications. The industry is lobbying states and the federal government to make it easier to get permitting approved. Unfortunately, their proposed laws and regulations often benefit the industry, not communities.

5G Will Be Particularly Difficult Inside Buildings

The same energy-efficient glazing used in LEED-certified buildings also blocks most 4G and 5G wireless signals. Many large buildings have installed distributed antenna systems (DAS) to help provide better coverage inside. These problems will likely become worse with 5G. Alternatives such as Passpoint-enabled WiFi may help, but these solutions will require high-band-width provided by the building owner.

All of the Hype Ignores the Major Issue: Competition & Innovation

Harvard’s Susan Crawford said, “99% of any 5G wireless deployment will have to be fiber running very close to every home and business.” Unfortunately, most neighborhoods in America still do not have fiber; they are stuck with DSL and cable. Telecommunications service providers have a near-monopoly in a given neighborhood, and they know it. Without the threat of competition, there is little incentive to innovate and invest in improving infrastructure. Perhaps 5G’s best benefit can be one that is rarely mentioned: upgrading America’s fiber Internet infrastructure.

Nathan Rosenberg is the Vice President Business Strategy for The Broadband Group. For over 20 years, The Broadband Group (TBG) has focused on city and community-wide integrated broadband planning, empowering land developers, utilities, and municipalities to make and execute informed decisions about telecommunications strategy. Contact Nathan.