When will We Get Realistic About 5G?

by Colin Berkshire

For five years now I have been skeptical of 5G. I am an outlier on this, but then I have an attribute that fewer and fewer people have: I can do math.

I am now hearing in the press every imaginable reason why the deployment of 5G in the US is delayed. These excuses include the need for more laws, the need for more bandwidth allocations, and the need for less regulation. They are all propaganda.

Roughly quarter to a third of all bandwidth allocated in the United States is unused. And this is especially true in cities and the most congested areas. A lot of this is because speculators such as Dish Network have bought up bandwidth and sit on it waiting for a high bidder. But also a lot of the mainstream carriers who just don’t build out their networks because they don’t see the point of making investments in a world of flat-rate unlimited plans.

Another major reason is a gross misunderstanding about what 5G is all about. Most will tell you it is about super high speeds that do things like download all of your movies in the blink of an eye. This is not the important part.

5G is two things:

  1. It is an improved protocol, and
  2. It is also higher frequencies.

The improved protocol is significant and allows such things as overlapping cells, so that huge 600 MHz cells can fill in all of the little holes in the smaller 2GHz and tiny 5+GHz cells. This means better, more thorough coverage in more places.

The higher frequencies provide super-fast speeds and ultra-high bandwidth. But these frequencies can’t penetrate as much as a sheet of glass. They can’t go through a wet tree. And they have a very short range, often as little as a city block. And, they are usually just line-of-sight so that if you can’t see the tower, it isn’t going to serve you. So while fast, they aren’t especially useful.

Higher frequencies will be good inside of a sports arena, or inside an airport. But they aren’t going to deliver good service inside your home or in a plane on the tarmac.

The reason hat 5G is so stalled in the United States is that US Carriers have preferred putting up very few but massive cellular towers. These towers are spaced a mile or five apart. This is cheap, but it is precisely the opposite of what 5G frequencies need. The Asian model of having many, many micro-towers that are everywhere is better suited to 5G. (In China, it is not uncommon for my cell phone to be in the range of 100 or more cellular towers…really.)

The business case for 5G in the US is also not based upon cell phone service. So if you are thinking 5G is going to primarily bring you better cell phone service you don’t know where the money is. A cell phone carrier isn’t inclined to spend 1 cent for you to have coverage in a dark spot. They view 5G as a way of offering internet to the homes.

The big cost of delivering highly profitable internet to homes is the last mile, and especially the last 250 feet. That last 250 feet can cost several thousand dollars to dig up and to get to your house.

With 5G a carrier can hang a box on a light post every 400 feet and every home within line of sight of that box is now able to be hooked up to the internet at very low cost. Comcast can use their cables to deliver internet to these boxes, ane then wirelessly hop to a transceiver mounted to the outside of your home. Thousands per connection are saved.

Internet providers that don’t have cables running down the streets are also in luck. They can use “mesh networking”. This means that your home talks to a nearby 5G box, and then that 5G box talks to the next 5G box down the line, and that talks to the next 5G box and so on. There is no need for wiring between these boxes when utilizing mesh networking.

So 5G frequencies are much more about delivering internet to homes and businesses than it is about cell phones. For cell phones, the main benefit of 5G (protocol) is allowing overlapping cells so that you have coverage in more places.

Think about it: Do you really need the ability to deliver your entire video library to your cell phone in the blink of an eye? Of course not. You just want fast enough service to watch a video…something you don’t have now.