The Emperor Only Wears Underpants

I’m starting to get concerned that the marketing hype surrounding 5G will struggle to meet the reality of the situation. Beyond any technical reservations (we’ll get to those) there seems to be a growing sentiment that 5G will cause fundamental upheavals in society and business – the like of which have never been seen before. Consider me a skeptic, but I cannot help but think of the story of the Emperor who wore no clothes.

To be clear: I do believe in 5G and what it is capable of, but I also think we need to place the technology into the context of what already exists. After all, I have fiber to the home, so 5G will not have any impact there, as fiber and mesh Wi-Fi are better than I will ever get with 5G. As such, when I’m asked if 5G will drive more home schooling, or more connected devices in our homes, I start to get concerned about the reality warp.

So let’s take a look at the 5G basics, and particularly the spectrum that is being used. The 5G hype machine is focusing on the benefits of the millimeter wave spectrum – spectrum in the range of 39 GHz – that provides the super high bandwidth with low latency. It’s a great story to tell and yes, it’s a huge leap forward from LTE. But it comes with a rather significant drawback: the higher the spectrum frequency, the shorter the distance it will travel and the more susceptible it is to blockage. At 39 GHz, the signal can be blocked by almost anything: your hand, a tree, even glass. Oh, and hope it’s not raining as that can impact the signal too. The signal is also good for only a few hundred feet. As a result, the carriers need to install a lot of antennas to make this work and, realistically, it will be in open areas such as parks and arenas to start with… then slowly deploying in major cities as they get local government permission to install the additional technology.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have T-Mobile which plans to use 700MHz as the basis of its initial 5G. This spectrum also has benefits, but lacks the marketing appeal. The signal will reach further than current towers can, and it will be faster than LTE (although far from the blistering speeds currently hyped) particularly as T-Mobile works to migrate the current spectrum over to 5G in time to increase the available bands. This strategy is great for rural markets that need better signals, and explains why T-Mobile’s strategy includes a home-based solution for these underserved markets. According to NPD Connected Intelligence’s new Rural America Report,  an estimated 31 percent of all households do not currently have access to broadband service at home  and the vast majority of these underserved homes are in rural markets.

And then there is Sprint, which has mid-band spectrum in the 2500MHz range, thanks to its acquisition of Clearwire many years ago. The irony here is that the carrier with the least money to spend has probably the best spectrum for a compromised 5G: faster, and still capable of traveling reasonable distances. If the T-Mobile/Sprint merger does get approval, the joint company will be in the strongest position to provide a decent 5G solution. It still won’t be the super-fast, super-low latency that we’ve been promised anytime soon, but it will be much better than the current LTE.

Of course, the ideal solution would be to have all three bands: millimeter wave for densely populated areas, 2500MHz for the broader, high-speed solution, and 700MHz to give us the true coverage layer. Since no one carrier has all three assets right now, we need a reality check against the 5G hype. The Emperor is still wearing clothes… just not very many at this point.

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