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February 19, 2019

5G - Hype or Reality?

February 19, 2019 - One would have to be living underground in an isolated cave or on a deserted island to somehow have missed that 5G is coming. The next generation wireless standard is being touted as the “Next Big Thing” in emerging technologies. Here in North America, both AT&T and Verizon are rolling out 5G branded services. 5G is a hot political football across multiple dimensions, which will be covered in a future blog post. The whole 5G hoopla is pretty confusing for the average lay person. That includes this author.

Despite my admitted lack of expertise, this blog post and one or two more to follow will pass along my observations and studies made over the past few months. These are my conclusions based upon reading the literature, cutting out magazine articles, talking to industry experts and attending Smart City conferences. Feel free to agree or disagree as you like. And, if you really feel strongly about 5G and have something to say, please submit your views via a blog post for publication here. Cimcon is always glad to accept contributions to promote open dialogue and understanding on emerging technologies.

The February 2019 issue of WIRED has an excellent 2-page 5G technical guide, pages 26-27. According to WIRED, the hyper-speed promise of 5G lies in a high-frequency span of wireless spectrum known as the millimeter-wave band. In that range of the spectrum, there is plenty of bandwidth available, where data can be transmitted at super-fast rates. As we all know since the introduction of “cell phones” by Motorola, wireless networks are always evolving. The compelling benefits which are promised by 5G include lightning fast speeds for users and much greater efficiencies for network operators. It has been estimated that in five to ten years, 5G will enable speeds of 10 gigabits per second, allowing one to download a high definition movie in about 30 seconds. So far, so good.

But millimeter waves present challenges of their own, which WIRED points out.

  • Obstacles: Millimeter waves are easily thwarted by things such as walls, people, vegetation and even rain.
  • Range: Millimeter waves are less reliable over long distances. (More on that follows*.)
  • Connectivity: 5G cells require broadband connections to reach the Internet. Carriers will be required to lay more fiber-optic cable to connect 5G cells. From conversations with a number of folks, I learned that trenching and construction costs to lay cable can easily exceed $100,000 per kilometer (.62 miles).

*A panel at the 2019 Smart Cities Connect Conference in Tampa which I attended presented the infrastructure contrasts of 4G LTE and 5G. Today one 4G LTE cell covers about one square mile, give or take. To provide the same geographical coverage, approximately 50-60 5G small cells are necessary. Depending upon location and surrounding environment, a 5G cell transmits distances ranging from 200 to 1000 feet. And as stated above, a fiber connection for each cell is a must have.

So, given the facts above, 5G rollouts will take both time and money. Technical standards for 5G are not expected to be finished upon 2020. A Wall Street Journal article points out that capital spending by telcos will be relatively flat in 2019, suggesting that 5G availability is further out. IDC thinks smartphone sales will average 1.4% growth in the next five years. Contrast that to 60% growth a year in 2011 during the early transition to LTE. So how can telcos justify 5G capital investments in a low growth market?

In my opinion, we have a chicken and egg conundrum here. The incomplete but emerging 5G technical standards and limited rollout of 5G networks will postpone the near-term launch of 5G phones. Apple reportedly will not launch a 5G iPhone until 2020.

And given that 5G requires a higher density of micro cells and fiber optics connections to the Internet, it is this author’s opinion that 5G networks will not be built out for significant coverage for several years. And certainly not in less densely settled areas.

5G is a topic with many dimensions. So, look for future blog posts exploring other aspects of this emerging technology.

Written by: Chris Davis
Date: February 19, 2019

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