Every service provider with a heartbeat is trialing 5G fixed broadband wireless services in some form, including AT&T (News - Alert), Google, and Verizon. Cellular carriers view it as a means to compete against cable and Google, while Google views it as a shiny technology to supplement and/or replace expensive fiber builds. For that matter, everyone believes it should be more economical than fiber for delivering gigabit-speed broadband. But it isn't clear in my mind if limitations to fixed wireless will hinder it from becoming as widespread as the telecom industry would like it.
Multi-gigabit speeds using radio technology today require line-of-site point-to-point transmission between a cell “site” service provider and the receiver (customer). The long road of fixed wireless broadband solutions is littered with the corpses of previous efforts dating back to the 1990s. Earlier attempts had three major flaws – specialized equipment, not enough speed to compete with alternatives, and the need for placing antennas in line-of-site to deliver service.
Two solid decades of radio technology development thanks to cell phones and LTE (News - Alert) have edged the industry from installations that needed thousands of dollars of gear and big antennas to consumer-grade, couple-hundred-or-lower gear for customers and simplified-to-install antennas. In addition, radio transmission speeds increased from a range of single digits to hundreds of megabits per second all the way to the multi-gigabit speeds being tossed around today in any 5G presentation lasting more than 10 seconds.
Two out of three ain't bad (with apologies to Meatloaf), but the biggest stumbling block remains. People will need to install antennas and point them at the service provider's 5G capable cell tower. Service provider will need to install this gear – both antennas and radios – in higher densities than current 4G LTE service AND have to worry about line-of-sight between customer and a network access point. So we're talking about a lot more gear and smaller cell service coverage densities than existing LTE networks to start, not to mention fiber core networks to support 5G multi-gig cells.
Mesh networking offers an interesting workaround to some of the limits of line-of-sight, so long as one can arrange for each “node” in the mesh to see two other nodes (antennas) with the mesh ultimately connecting back to a service provider's core network via fiber. But you still come back to the essentials of antenna and line of sight at some point, which means having roof rights for larger buildings and the ability to put up an antenna that doesn't annoy the homeowner's association for townhouses and ordinary homes.
Cell companies already have had to do one set of legwork in fleshing out and expanding LTE coverage with more cells per square mile, so they have a decent knowledge base on migrating 5G gear into cells. But connecting enough paying customers to make the 5G fixed wireless story pay off? We will have to wait and see, but past efforts by independents didn't show big wins. Never underestimate the power of roof rights and truck rolls.
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Edited by Alicia Young