In early 2000, right at the top of the dotcom bubble, the mobile bubble and the broadband bubble, European mobile operators spent €110bn on licenses for 3G spectrum. Now, almost 20 years later, I’ve just got back from CES, and 5G is a Topic. Many of my friends at big companies tell me that ‘what is 5G?’ floats around a lot of corporate headquarters almost as much as ‘what is machine learning?’ does.
There are a bunch of different ways to answer this. If I was still a telecoms analyst, I would be spending a lot of time thinking about spectrum, deployment schedules and capex - mobile operators around the world spend several hundred billion dollars a year on network capex, and 5G will become a big part of that. I’d talk about network efficiencies, refarming, vendors, Huawei, chipsets, and maybe NFV. But I’m not a telecoms analyst anymore - I work in Silicon Valley. So, seen from Silicon Valley, I think there are maybe four things to talk about.
First, what actual changes should we expect?
Without going into the technical details (any more than absolutely necessary), what do we actually get from this? A fatter pipe.
- As with each previous generational change, 5G makes it cheaper and easier for mobile operators to build more capacity. So, they can continue to accommodate growing usage.
- 5G will be deployed on existing cellular radio frequencies, but also lets operators address much higher radio frequencies (over 20 GHz, AKA millimeter wave or ‘mmWave’) that have never previously been usable for mobile services. (This will also require the installation of many short range base stations.)
- Mainly because of this new spectrum, mobile 5G speeds in good conditions could be well over 100 megabits/sec and potentially several hundreds megabits/sec (mobile speeds of over a gigabit/sec are technically possible but unlikely in the real world).
- However, deployment in this frequencies, and hence these eye-catching new speeds, will be possible only in pretty constrained areas and will happen pretty slowly. Signals at such frequencies have worse range and don’t go through walls ( to simplify hugely), so don’t expect these speeds in rural areas or indeed inside buildings (this is why they have not previously been used for mobile at all). 5G deployment on more conventional mobile spectrum will have speeds (and coverage) closer to 4G
- 5G is promised to have much better latency than 4G - perhaps 20-30ms in the real world, down from 50-60ms for LTE (4G). It’s not clear how visible this will be to users.
- Some people (eg Verizon) think that you can also use 5G in these higher frequencies for a home broadband service (which would mean an antennae on the outside of your house, or in a window), offering up to a gigabit/sec. There is also a fair bit of skepticism about both the economic and technical cases for this. Of course, the newest version of DOCSIS (cable internet) offer much the same - something around a third of the US population could have access to these speeds anyway.
So, mobile gets better latency and the mobile pipe keeps getting fatter. Fixed broadband will get more competition, in some places.
Second, what does it mean to have steadily fatter pipes?
Read full article here: https://www.ben-evans.com/benedictevans/2019/1/16/5g-if-you-build-it-we-will-fill-it