Cellular technology is about to make an evolutionary leap. 5G is almost here. But you’re gonna have to wait a little longer. Here’s why.
FOSTER CITY, Calif. — If we’ve learned nothing from our extended stays at home for the last few months, it is that a good, high-speed connection to the internet is critical. Whether for work, school, entertainment or information, broadband internet has arguably become an essential utility that everyone in America should have an affordable right to access.
At present, the vast majority of us receive that high-speed internet via a wired connection, such as cable or fiber optic from an internet service provider (ISP) like Comcast, Charter or AT&T. While those networks have proven to be remarkably resilient during these challenging times, they aren’t always available in many rural areas. Plus, for many consumers, they represent the only choice for a given region, limiting options in choosing providers.
Ashley Bullard, left, sits on the porch of her family’s rural home in North Sandwich, N.H., as her daughters Raven, center, a senior in high school, and Willow, right, a freshman at Brandeis University, try to complete their classwork from home during the virus outbreak on a very limited internet connection, Thursday, March 26, 2020. (Photo: Charles Krupa, AP)
The answer to limited internet access?
An obvious solution to those limitations would be to receive your internet connection via a wireless connection.
In fact, satellite-based internet service from companies like Hughes used to be a big deal, and even now there are a remarkably large number of companies that offer something called fixed wireless internet service.
Fixed wireless is considered a “last mile” technology – meaning it provides the connection along the hypothetical last mile between a main internet connection hub and your home. It does so by broadcasting a signal from a tower that’s connected to the main hub toward an antenna that you install onto your roof. Surprisingly, what it doesn’t do (in most cases) is use the cellular networks we all use for our smartphones.
With the growing use of 5G wireless networks, however, that will soon start to change.
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Already, Verizon has launched a service called 5G Home in parts of five cities around the country – Los Angeles, Sacramento, Houston, Indianapolis, and Chicago. The service uses the same millimeter wave-based 5G network the company has started to deploy for 5G smartphones in order to bring high-speed wireless internet access to your home.
T-Mobile has committed to introducing a similar 5G fixed wireless service in the future, building on the limited trial of 4G LTE-based wireless internet service they introduced last year.
In many cases, what’s nice about Verizon’s 5G Home is that it doesn’t require the installation of an antenna on your roof, as most fixed wireless internet services currently do (although there are some locations where a DirecTV-type antenna and professional installation may be required for the 5G Home service). For the locations that don’t require an antenna, the company can send you a self-install kit consisting of a few components.
The roughly 8-inch-tall “receiver” splits in two and attaches to both the inside and outside of a window in your home and plugs into a power outlet. The receiver, in turn, connects to a bundled Wi-Fi router (and optionally, some Wi-Fi extenders to create a Wi-Fi mesh network – see “Is your home Wi-Fi slow? Bolster your connectivity with a mesh system” for more). You, then, use a simple app on your smartphone to walk through the process of setting up the new internet service and home wireless network on your own.
(Photo: GETTY IMAGES)
What’s the difference
One of the big improvements of 5G Home service versus the other fixed wireless options is that it offers speeds that closely match the fastest options that cable modem-based internet service have to offer: peak speeds of up to 1 Gbps and average speeds around 300 Mbps. Given that many broadband connections average only about 25-30 Mbps, that translates to a very noticeable 10-12x improvement. Practically speaking, that means simultaneously streaming several HD or even 4K Netflix or Disney+ streams, along with online gaming and regular browsing by multiple members of a household won’t be a problem.
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With smartphones, mmWave 5G signals don’t travel far, which means Verizon has to install a lot more towers or signal transmitting points to cover a given area than is necessary with other types of 5G signals. That, in turn, means the build-out of the service to other cities around the country is going to take a while.
However, there are a few critical differences between how mmWave 5G works for fixed wireless service than it does for smartphones, all of which improve the range of mmWave for broadband applications.
First, because the receiver device you install at home is plugged into an outlet, it can use more power than a battery-powered smartphone. The practical benefit is that allows the device to pick up the signals from further distances. Second, because the position of the transmitting towers and receivers aren’t moving (they’re “fixed” after all), a pair of 5G-related technologies called Massive MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) and beamforming can send a tightly focused beam of signal from the tower to the receiver and that also helps to improve the range of 5G mmWave.
So, instead of only being able to cover the area equivalent to the size of a city block from a given transmitter, mmWave for fixed applications can reach over a mile.
T-Mobile has committed to introducing a similar 5G fixed wireless service in the future, building on the limited trial of 4G LTE-based wireless internet service they introduced last year. (Photo: ZU_09 / Getty Images)
In contrast, T-Mobile’s planned 5G fixed wireless service will likely use the same low-band and mid-band 5G signals that it’s been using for most of its 5G smartphone network. The benefit is that these signals travel further still, which means the network requires less transmitters and it can reach much further into less populated regions. In addition, these signals don’t require a direct line of sight to a tower and can pass through windows and walls, making external antennas or other receivers unnecessary.
The downside, however, is that the speeds are not as fast. We won’t know for sure what the capabilities of any T-Mobile service will be until it’s launched of course, but the tradeoff of speed vs. convenience is something consumers will likely have to consider.
Ultimately, 5G fixed wireless should prove to be a very attractive option for consumers in urban areas who want an alternative to cable or other wired choices. In rural parts of the U.S., 5G fixed wireless services could be a real godsend because of the extremely limited (or even completely lacking) options they now have.
We’re still a bit early, but there’s little doubt that 5G is going to become an interesting new entry in the choice for home broadband internet connections.
USA TODAY columnist Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, a market research and consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. His clients are major technology firms including Microsoft, HP, Dell, Samsung and Intel. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech
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