5G is coming! 5G is coming! Everywhere in the world, the cellular industry is pushing fifth-generation (5G) deployments even though not all 5G spectrum has been identified, licensed, or even auctioned. T-Mobile is deploying 5G at 600 MHz, but 5G below 2.5 GHz is not what the technology is about. 5G below 2.5 GHz is meant to be about data speeds though network capacity will vary. The only way to gain higher speeds and more network capacity is to deploy small cells closer together so each cell serves fewer people and is empowered with more spectrum.
5G was designed for dense urban areas but the concept has now been expanded to include rural areas as well. In some cases, this makes sense since you can light up rural areas with a fiber, microwave, or satellite backhaul and then use a combination of 4G LTE, 5G, and even WiFi to deploy broadband into homes and businesses. Meanwhile, LTE can deliver broadband to farmers’ fields and students outside of towns can still access broadband services. FirstNet (Built with AT&T) has publicly stated that as it rolls out 5G, public safety will be able to share use of 5G on a priority and preemptive basis where available.
At the moment, most carriers are focused on high-band (28 GHz) and mid-band (3.5 to 6 GHz) spectrum. T-Mobile is also testing 5G on the 600-MHz spectrum it bought at auction and has built out 1,500 markets. There will be significant differences between 5G speeds. On 600-MHz spectrum where T-Mobile is essentially using 5G in place of LTE, early results show 100 Mbps near the cell site. In comparison, the 28-GHz portion of 5G spectrum is capable of gigabit speeds—all 5G is not created equal. While it appears all 5G speeds, including the 600-MHz spectrum, will be faster than LTE speeds currently being delivered, GHz-spectrum will be much faster and provide better penetration into buildings.
It is interesting that work Dr. Ted Rappaport (NYU) and his students undertook many years ago to determine how 5G could be used for both point-to-point and multi-point communications is still the standard. Dr. Rappaport gave several presentations to the Radio Club of America Technical Symposium years before the industry “discovered” 5G, and his lab is now working on 6G, which uses spectrum above 100 GHz. All this GHz spectrum was considered unusable for other than point-to-point communications until recently and now it is the “next big thing.”
Where deployed by AT&T, 5G will be a valuable addition to FirstNet. There will be times at an incident when the amount of data that can be transmitted and received will get a real boost by using small cells that are close together. When working toward convincing federal staffers that first responders needed more than 10 MHz of 700-MHz spectrum (5X5 MHz), we presented information showing that many incidents, especially in metro areas, occur in small areas covered by a single cell sector, which means that cell sector would not have sufficient capacity for video, data, and other services needed at the incident.
As it turned out, when it won the RFP, AT&T surprised many of us by offering up its entire LTE spectrum. We instantly understood this would minimize the number of times an incident might require more broadband capacity than FirstNet (Built with AT&T) could supply. So far, this has proven to be correct. Adding 5G adds more capacity and speed to the FirstNet pool of resources, and I believe this will be a major advantage for FirstNet.
While 5G systems are being built and the first devices are being advertised, I think it is too early to plan on 5G becoming an everyday communications tool on FirstNet. Perhaps the best way to move into the world of 5G is to equip a vehicle or two with 5G capabilities and then link the vehicles to FirstNet LTE during an incident. 5G is still a technology in process and there remain a number of questions about its rollout. Everyone believes 5G will come, but the rate at which a technology develops is sometimes dependent on delays over which vendors and network operators have no control.
The recent trade wars, banning both Huawei and ZTE from doing business in the United States, and blocking them from buying parts from the United States, among other actions, seem somewhat shortsighted to me. First, most of the world’s electronics are built offshore, and I understand Huawei holds some important 5G patents on products that, if not available, could hinder the rollout of 5G here. Add to this that the FCC is auctioning GHz spectrum as fast as it can identify spectrum to auction. Further, it is not at all clear if network sharing between carriers will be permitted, or even agreed upon by the various networks.
5G is an important next step in our broadband communications rollout but I think the rollout will be slower than expected and over time we will probably see changes to 5G as it evolves. If we cannot solve the issue of spectrum sharing, are we doomed to having five or six new poles put in the ground every block in rights-of-ways so each network can offer 5G services? What does this do to cities and towns that care about their city’s aesthetics? What about the many areas that require utilities to be run underground, and how many times will rights-of-ways be dug up so carrier Y can run fiber past a pole where carrier X has already run its fiber?
The sensible course of action for FirstNet users is to watch, wait, and see how AT&T’s 5G systems are rolled out, perhaps dip a toe into 5G for fixed broadband to fire and police stations, and proceed cautiously. We are still learning what FirstNet can do, more applications and devices are still being added, every day more first responders are using FirstNet, and FirstNet (the network and the Authority) is collecting data and making plans for additional coverage, services, and applications. While I am excited about the prospect of 5G, I have lived through all the Gs including Pre-G when RAM Mobile Data, ARDIS, and CDPD/LMR packet-data (MDC) where two-way data was sent and received at much slower but usable rates.
Every one of the Pre-Gs and Gs took longer than expected to be deployed and then a few years more to come close to what had been promised. In the meantime, many people invested a lot of money only to discover they were too early and their expectations were beyond what was delivered. 5G is even more fragmented than any of the other Gs. It will come and it will be successful, of that I am certain. However, I am also certain there will be stubbed toes along the way.
We also should be aware that some individuals or groups have hired big-name politicians to try to convince the federal government to build out the 5G experience and then lease it to network operators. These folks have promoted similar ideas before and while it appears the feds have closed the door to such proposals, the push has not stopped. They may still be looking for a way to make the coming of 5G their own project, but they have not been successful in other such endeavors and I don’t believe they will be this time around either. It is the same everywhere. Where there is opportunity, there are always people who attempt to take advantage of the situation for their own gain.
We appear to making progress in the area of rural broadband coverage with the House passing its bill and the Senate introducing a bill. Perhaps this year we will finally be ready to start coordinating rural broadband activities and pooling federal assets that have been allocated. Along these lines, Rep. Clyburn (D-SC) has launched the House (Democratic) taskforce on rural broadband to address the rural digital divide and eliminate “digital deserts.” This can only help, but this effort truly needs both parties. Rural areas that do not yet have broadband capabilities are located in both red and blue states so a solution that favors one set of states over another is a non-starter. Hopefully we will see more bi-partisan coordination.
I have had some really interesting conversations with people involved in the three planned forays into little LEO (Low Earth Orbit) satellites to cover the globe and provide Internet everywhere. There seem to be two schools of thought about how to coordinate handing off an Internet user from one satellite to another. As you know, these little birds are not stationary but are whipping around the earth at a pretty good clip. I have not been able to find out exactly how long a single satellite will be usable from a fixed location on the ground, but it will need to be replaced by the next satellite whizzing along behind the first.
According to my sources, there are two ways to accomplish these handoffs. With the first, each satellite hands off its connections to the next one behind it like when you drive down the highway and are on a cell call (handsfree of course). As you drive out of one cell into another, you are not aware you have been switched to another cell site. The second way is that each little bird will be communicating with a ground station to make the broadband connection. When this little bird flies out of range, the ground station will switch the user to the next satellite in line and so on. I look forward to watching how all this works, and if one handoff method or the other creates more network latencies.
During these discussions I was repeatedly asked why FirstNet is not making more use of satellite backhaul for rural areas, or won’t (I am told) include satellite service providers that already cover much of rural America. I am not privy to any plans or issues FirstNet considers when choosing partners, but since it has multiple push-to-talk partners and multiple applications vendors, I have to wonder why FirstNet would not consider adding vendors that might be able to help extend coverage into more of rural America.
Because I still cannot find a model that works, I remain skeptical about the economics of covering the world with thousands of little LEO satellites. I have been told the federal government might be a viable source of income along with marine traffic and perhaps airplanes delivering WiFi to their passengers. Beyond that I am having a tough time identifying a source of revenue that will keep a company in business. Consider this, at least three contenders plan to load up rockets with little LEOs and send them into space to compete with each other for the few dollars people living in poverty in rural areas of the United States and the world will be able to pay for service.
The first attempts at the Internet in the sky fell flat as more and more areas rolled out cellular systems. Today more and more of these systems are being expanded into rural areas, so by the time the little LEOs are airborne and ready, it is possible many underserved areas will be up and running with terrestrial broadband. Time will tell. 5G is coming and it will be increasingly helpful to public safety in many ways, some of which are yet to be identified, but little LEOs? I won’t take odds on their financial success!
Andrew M. Seybold
©2019, Andrew Seybold, Inc.