The next generation of wireless technology will offer new consumer and business applications, with near real-time connectivity.
In the last decade, 4G wireless technology has become the standard for many mobile consumers around the world.
From social media platforms like Snap and Instagram to transportation apps like Uber and Lyft, many companies have benefited tremendously from the reliable connectivity and speed provided by today’s 4G systems.
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While this fourth generation of wireless technology has paved the way for new mediums of mobile consumption, it does have limitations. Over the next decade, the rise of connected “internet of things” (IoT) devices will require networks to transmit massive sums of data in near real-time.
The next generation of wireless technology, known as 5G, will allow just that.
Early 5G deployment began at the end of 2018 when AT&T launched 5G wireless networks in 12 cities, but the pace has picked up since then and the major US carriers now claim to offer some form of 5G nationwide.
Corporates are increasingly focused on this technology: according to CB Insights’ earnings transcript tool, 5G has been mentioned thousands of times in earnings calls since the start of 2019.
We dive into the background of wireless technology, the introduction of 5G, and how the next generation of connectivity will come to be.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- History of wireless technology systems
- What is 5G?
- Industries being disrupted by 5G
- Financial services
- Supply-chain management
- Four drivers paving the way for 5G
- Fiber-optic infrastructure
- Small cell deployment
- High-frequency spectrum availability
- Bringing 5G indoors with fixed wireless
- Barriers to 5G adoption
- What’s next for 5G
History of wireless technology systems
Wireless communications have existed for over a century, but it wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 1980s that it was commercially deployed for consumer cell phones. The first generation (1G) of wireless cellular technology allowed for mobile voice calls, but nothing more.
The second generation (2G) of wireless cellular tech provided improvements to voice calling and introduced text messaging via SMS (and later media messaging via MMS). Later iterations of 2G introduced data transmission, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that 3G allowed consumers to use media-rich applications like mobile internet browsing and video calling. 4G (also known as 4G LTE), reached consumers in the early 2010s and is able to reach real-world speeds of around 100 Mbps. These speeds allow for mobile online gaming, stream high-def video, group video conferencing, connected home solutions, and even emerging experiences like AR/VR.
That said, noticeable download times are typical at 4G speeds. For most consumers, this is a small price to pay for media-rich wireless freedom. But for industries like transportation or healthcare, latency (the delay before data transfer) can have a direct impact on system outcomes. This is one area where 5G could make a big difference. For example, low latency could help enable near-instant communication between autonomous vehicles — in some scenarios, a difference of even a fraction of a second could be enough to prevent a fatal accident.
Though 5G will improve consumer’s experience using their phones, it will have a bigger impact on mission-critical systems supporting major industries and will provide the infrastructure for tomorrow’s connected technologies.
What is 5G?
5G is the next generation of wireless cellular technology. It will provide speeds faster than any previous generation — up to 3000 Mbps (3 Gbps) in the real world, depending on the conditions and the tech being used — competing even with those delivered via fiber-optic cables. Movies that took minutes to download with 4G will take seconds with 5G.
While smartphones and other mobile devices are the obvious use cases for 5G, there are many other applications for the technology. The internet of things (IoT), for example, will benefit tremendously from the speed and bandwidth provided by 5G, especially as the industry grows. In 2020, there were an estimated 12B IoT connections globally, according to IoT Analytics. By 2025, it’s anticipated that there will be more than 30B IoT connections around the world, more than 4 IoT devices for every person on Earth. Autonomous vehicles, robotic surgery, and critical infrastructure monitoring are just a few of the potential applications of 5G-enabled IoT.
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Industries being disrupted by 5G
5G’s quantum leap in connectivity creates tremendous opportunities for numerous industries but also sets the stage for large-scale disruption. Industries such as healthcare, manufacturing, and auto are already adopting technologies and becoming more connected. Once 5G becomes widespread, the effect on these industries could be transformative for 3 main reasons:
- 5G offers lower latency, enabling faster transmission of larger data streams
- 5G is more reliable, enabling better transmission of data in extreme conditions
- 5G is more flexible than Wi-Fi and can support a wider range of devices, sensors, and wearables
We dive into several industries set to be impacted by 5G below.
With the goal of reducing costs and improving health outcomes, healthcare spending is shifting towards preventative care.
Source: Principal Global
5G offers an enormous opportunity for expanding preventative and monitoring practices via wearable devices. Such devices are already being used to track everything from sleep to blood glucose levels to physical activity, among other things. 5G’s faster speeds and greater network reliability will allow for the development of more complex devices, including those implanted directly into a human body rather than worn externally.
Microscopic cameras equipped with 5G will be able to provide real-time video streaming in and out of patients’ bodies, setting the groundwork for more remote diagnoses and other more complex telehealth practices. Today, for example, recovering stroke patients for whom repeated hospital visits are a burden often suffer from a lack of home monitoring and care. New kinds of wearables that track patients around their daily lives — not easy today with 4G — could allow for such patients to get more personalized monitoring and telemedicine-based care without having to visit a hospital. Telemedicine is projected to grow to a $190B market by 2026, according to CB Insights’ Industry Analysts Consensus market sizing tool. While the telemedicine sector was poised to experience strong growth pre-pandemic, the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the demand for telehealth services dramatically.
In the field of remote-controlled robotic surgery, 5G has the potential to dramatically expand the ability of doctors to bring critical and specialized care services to patients worldwide. Conducting robotic surgery remotely is feasible today, especially in dense urban areas with access to fast broadband internet, but doctors generally have to be located in the same operating theater as the patient for it to work. But by allowing for low latency and jitter-free communication over long distances, 5G could enable operations to take place from anywhere in the world. In January 2019, a team in China tested 5G remote surgery, removing an animal’s liver in the province of Fujian. In the US, Rush University System for Health is trialing 5G connectivity in its hospitals, in partnership with AT&T.
The manufacturing industry has already started adopting artificial intelligence and IoT technologies to increase efficiency, improve data collection, and build better predictive analytics. With 5G, manufacturers gain a faster, more reliable means of collecting and transmitting that data, as well as a broader range of sensors and devices they can integrate into their factories and workflows.
One area that will see major improvements with 5G is augmented reality (AR) for manufacturing. Ericsson began testing augmented reality troubleshooting in its Tallinn, Estonia factory in January 2018. With an AR app, technicians can observe a part that needs maintenance and pull up the relevant schematics and instructions within their field of vision, drastically shortening the time it takes to complete the repair. Ericsson has also partnered with MTU Aero Engines, an airplane engine manufacturer, and Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology to test 5G tech. Ericsson says that this initiative could lead to savings of around 27M euros for a single factory.
Ericsson has also applied 5G to its own operations. For example, it started producing its Street Macro base station at its smart factory in Lewisville, Texas, in March 2020. The 300,000-square-foot Lewisville factory relies heavily on 5G technologies to boost production efficiency through applications like “connected” logistics, automated assembly, and autonomous carts. A technician repairs a circuit board using an augmented reality overlay at Ericsson’s Tallinn factory. Source: Ericsson
Another major benefit of 5G technology is the ability to run multiple dedicated networks on the same infrastructure to customize speed, coverage, security — also known as slicing. Even though the ability to run separate networks already exists, slicing could make it easier to tailor them to manufacturing processes and improve adaptability, like accommodating increased volumes of production. The popularity of the technology is such that two-thirds of industrial companies want to deploy it within 2 years of availability, according to a 2019 report by digital transformation consultancy Capgemini.
Tesla, Google, and others have been racing for years to build the first viable autonomous vehicle capable of navigating any environment without the input of a human driver. Their primary approach to the problem thus far uses onboard computers and radar to scan the environment around the vehicle and decide a car’s next movement based on the information. Some companies, including Qualcomm, Ericsson, Huawei, and Nokia, are looking to 5G and edge computing as a potential solution to the problems faced by autonomous vehicles.
Their consortium, the 5G Automotive Association (5GAA), began work on “cellular-vehicle-to-everything,” or C-V2X, technology in 2016. Rather than cars determining individually how to act, in the C-V2X system, driverless vehicles communicate with one another and with parts of the physical environment like traffic lights and construction signs in order to coordinate movements safely and efficiently. The system is in a testing phase today, but researchers believe 5G could help enable truly autonomous driving in the future.
C-V2X technologies could reshape the automotive sector, as well as how urban planners design cities to optimize traffic flow. Many of the technology’s primary applications relate to safety, such as automatic notifications that alert motorists to vehicles traveling in the wrong direction on one-way roads. The number of automotive 5G connections is expected to reach 96M by 2027, according to telecoms consultancy Analysys Mason. 5G availability would mean a greater density of sensors in the environment and faster data transmission from centralized servers to those sensors and vehicles — and as a result, faster improvement via machine learning algorithms. The average autonomous car of the future could produce as much as 2M gigabytes of data per week, and moving all of that data to the cloud or a regional server isn’t feasible today with Wi-Fi or 4G.
The automotive sector represents one of the largest market opportunities for manufacturers of 5G technologies. However, while American automakers such as Ford are exploring the potential of 5G in their forthcoming vehicles, US companies lag behind those in China by a considerable margin. As of May 2021, China is the only country in which vehicular technologies such as C-V2X are already commercially available. Both FAW Group Corp., a state-run automotive manufacturer, and BYD Co. Ltd. began offering vehicles featuring C-V2X technology in 2020, giving Chinese automakers a substantial head start on their American counterparts, which do not expect to introduce C-V2X-enabled models until 2022. Huawei, which has been at the center of ongoing trade disputes between China and the US since 2018, has been working with several European automotive companies, including Audi and BMW, to test experimental technologies such as remote-controlled driving capabilities using 5G.
Over the last several years, retailers have invested millions in smart technologies to help customers shop more efficiently and check out faster while also collecting more data on the customer experience. From in-store analytics to visual recognition-driven shelf monitoring, all depend on or benefit from the ability to transmit large amounts of data and access high-throughput connections, which is why 5G stands to have such a large impact on the way retailers operate.
Current “smart shelves” incorporating RFID technology, for example, can tell a business owner the ratio of item pick-ups to sales and display dynamic prices. With 5G technology, shelves equipped with sensors could determine low stock on a product, ping a distribution center to restock its inventory, and dynamically monitor the progress of that shipment. The amount of data needed to move over the mobile network is too great for existing infrastructure, according to AT&T. Today, companies like Sephora use virtual try-on technology to help in-store customers see what a particular makeup would look like on them before they buy, but the product is constricted by data streaming limits. 5G technology eliminates such limits — we could one day be using data-heavy applications like trying on clothes in augmented reality with photo-realistic accuracy.
The possibilities offered by 5G are likely to transform the retail sector in the coming years, providing opportunities for major technology companies to create new product offerings. In February 2021, Verizon Business announced a new 5G-enabled mobile edge computing (MEC) platform developed in partnership with Deloitte and SAP. The platform promises to offer retailers real-time analytics on in-store consumer behavior via sophisticated sensor networks combined with augmented reality and artificial intelligence. Verizon’s platform could also solve some common retail challenges, such as real-time inventory management.
Verizon is also investing in startups working to bring new wireless technologies to the retail sector. In June 2021, Verizon partnered with British digital agency Digital Catapult to launch the Verizon 5G Immersive Retail Accelerator. The program will nurture early-stage telecommunications startups to develop new technologies for use in the retail and customer experience spaces.
5G also has the potential to create entirely new types of shopping experiences: an augmented reality application on your smartphone, for example, that triggers when you enter a store and guides you directly to the shelf where you can find your items of choice. The physical groundwork for these kinds of experiences is already occurring with cashier-less retail (e.g., Amazon Go). Improvements in connectivity — as a result of 5G technology — could increase retail revenue by $12B annually by the end of 2021, according to Adobe Digital Insights.
Media giants such as Fox and Warner Brothers have already begun to explore the use of 5G technology. 5G will be able to offer live streaming of unparalleled quality. Amazon and Dish Network are already in negotiations to jointly build and support a 5G network. Download speeds will also increase dramatically over 5G, making movie, game, and TV downloads possible in seconds rather than minutes — allowing for better quality music, higher-res films, and streaming high-spec games. Better mobile connectivity is projected to propel global mobile media revenue to $420B annually by 2028, according to a 2018 Intel/Ovum report.
5G could have an even more transformative effect on augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). VR and AR applications have a higher field of view, resolution, and frame rate than conventional media, and as such require a significantly higher level of bandwidth and lower level of latency in order to transmit a consistent experience to the viewer. Your typical 4G connection has about 60ms of latency, far too slow for the VR experience, which can become disorienting and jarring even at 15ms. 5G, on the other hand, promises a latency of between 1-4 milliseconds. Faster connectivity through 5G will also be revolutionary for the e-sports and gaming industry, where quick response times can often determine a player’s success. Mobile 5G gaming revenue is expected to be worth $100B by 2028, according to the Intel/Ovum report.
With high speeds and low latency, 5G could help enable more cost-effective energy transmission. Faster connection speeds could result in energy grids being more efficiently managed, which, in turn, could lead to less downtime. For example, in the event of a power outage, 5G-equipped smart power grids could quickly provide insights into the problem using data and sensors. The tech could also lead to a more stable supply of energy, as suppliers would be equipped to make better-informed decisions about the distribution of power based on vast amounts of data and smart sensors. 5G could allow for more efficient transmission and management of energy.
A version of this type of smart grid can be seen in Hawaii, where a system built in collaboration with Verizon analyzes outages and monitors meters. Better connectivity could also have upsides on the consumption end. Streetlights connected with 5G technology and equipped with sensors could dim if there aren’t any people or vehicles on the road, thus saving energy. This approach could lead to savings of up to $1B annually in the US, according to a report from Accenture.
With 5G allowing better connectivity between devices, more homes will likely become equipped with smart meters. These meters will be able to provide insight into the energy consumption of different home appliances and devices, giving homeowners more information to manage their energy use. Verizon believes that the energy industry will be a key demonstration of 5G’s potential, with the company stating that the sector will be one of the “most significant test cases” for 5G technology.
5G could also be more energy-efficient to use than previous generations of wireless cellular tech. Research conducted by Finnish telecom giant Nokia and Spanish multinational Telefónica suggests that 5G technologies are up to 90% more energy efficient per traffic unit than 4G networks — though 5G networks are expected to handle much more traffic and will need lots new equipment, which may blunt the potential for overall energy savings.
5G will offer farmers the opportunity to get faster, more accurate information in the field — which could help to increase outputs like crop yield and make it easier to prevent common crop and wildlife illnesses. Companies such as SlantRange are already providing drone services for farmers to gain insight into their crops. With 5G connectivity, such services could operate with much more accuracy. Autonomous tractors, for example, may eventually use 5G to pair with drones to guide their work, like identifying which parts of a field needs fertilizer.
Precision farming is expected to see major improvements with 5G technology. For resource-intensive crops, factors such as soil health need to be monitored to help increase yield. Syncing a precision farming process using current 4G LTE networks can take about 30-60 seconds. With 5G, this process can be brought down to less than one second, according to John Deere Technology Innovation Center.
The Food Resiliency Project is an example of an initiative that has brought together different stakeholders to find ways to apply 5G to farming. For instance, the project has combined edge computing technology, IoT deployments, and 5G networks to improve crop yields by continuously analyzing soil conditions.
With the growth of mobile banking and fintech, financial services have been moving towards greater personalization and ease of access for the last decade. But 5G has the potential to accelerate that transition and transform banking into a more ubiquitous and instantaneous process. For example, mobile payments could happen much faster and more reliably as multiple processes could be executed in parallel. In July 2021, Verizon Business and Mastercard announced a partnership to develop a range of 5G and MEC services, including Mastercard’s Tap on Phone mobile point of sale (PoS) product, autonomous checkout technologies for retail stores, and a mobile-first bill paying service, among other initiatives. The companies are continuing to research applications of 5G technologies at Mastercard’s Tech Hub in Manhattan.
Some observers are betting on 5G to bring better banking to areas where physical branches aren’t present. AT&T, for example, is reportedly developing mobile branches for banks in the US, which will be connected using 5G technology. These mobile branches are envisioned as serving scenarios like music festivals, pop-up shops, and remote areas with low banking needs. The banking sector’s efforts towards providing greater personalization in services will also likely get a boost from 5G. For example, increased data collection that enables sharper artificial intelligence capabilities could provide insights that allow banks to deliver highly-tailored services to customers.
Supply chain management
By making digital communication more ubiquitous, 5G tech has the potential to transform nearly every part of the supply chain. In a warehouse, for example, 5G-connected devices coupled with sensors would allow quicker communication, collection of a larger amount of data, and faster responses to breakdowns. One application of 5G tech in supply chains is tracking and tracing packaging or parts in real time. Faster internet speeds, connected sensors, and more bandwidth could make it possible for companies to continuously monitor the condition of individual packages being shipped. This ability to better track individual packages could also streamline insurance claims for damaged shipments. With 5G-enabled sensors attached to packages, it would be easier to monitor their status — including variables like temperature, moisture, and location — information that would help stakeholders identify where things went wrong and claim insurance accordingly.
Logistics firm Ice Mobility has been testing 5G technologies to improve the efficiency of its packing operations since October 2020. Specifically, Ice Mobility has been using computer-vision technologies as part of a partnership with Microsoft and Verizon to improve its quality assurance processes. 5G and MEC technologies allow Ice Mobility to analyze packing operations in real time and identify potential faults with packing at the time of processing. The company estimates the time savings offered by these technologies could improve processing times by up to 30%.
Autonomous delivery, which is already being tested by companies like DHL, is another area that could receive a boost from 5G connectivity. As a larger number of devices will be able to latch on to the same network, it will allow companies to deploy more connected autonomous vehicles in dense areas.
Four drivers paving the way for 5G
Below, we identify 4 primary drivers that will drive widespread 5G adoption and highlight how they will contribute to the deployment and use of 5G systems.
While sometimes perceived as competing technologies, fiber-optic networks and wireless networks actually work in tandem.
Data travels through wires the majority of the time, with wireless antennas typically completing the last few miles of delivery. In this way, fiber functions as the nervous system of a mobile network. Connecting data centers to cellular antennas (cell towers or small cells) with fiber allows for the near real-time speeds expected from 5G — without fiber, there would be a weak link in the data transmission. Fiber-optic infrastructure is prevalent today and used by current 4G systems, but much more will be required to support widespread 5G.
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Wireless service providers are leveraging different strategies to scale their 5G networks. For example, Verizon is looking to own its fiber backhaul (underlying connective infrastructure). The company has worked with high-tech glass manufacturer Corning — which also makes special glass for applications like smartphone screens — and fiber provider Prysmian to design and install fiber-optic cables for 5G. In April 2017, Verizon announced a 3-year purchase agreement with Corning to buy tens of miles of optical fiber. T-Mobile, on the other hand, leases “dark fiber” (unused or underutilized fiber) to support its small cells deployment. While the company may not own the fiber, it can provide 5G services sooner as much of the leased backhaul is already installed.
The dark fiber market is poised for strong growth in the coming years. So-called long-haul networks — fiber optic cabling designed to transport large volumes of data over great distances — are expected to see significant growth as 5G deployments in rural and non-metro areas come online in the coming years. Telcos have traditionally been reluctant to invest in large-scale infrastructure projects due to the costs involved in laying new cable. However, the projected demand for 5G services and the growing need for network infrastructure that can handle large volumes of high-speed data traffic is forcing many telcos’ hands.
Verizon is planning to invest around $18B in infrastructure — including fiber-optic cables — to expand services like 5G. Most of these 5G deployments will probably look to support urban centers before expanding to rural areas. However, areas already infused with pervasive fiber — urban or rural — are likely candidates for early 5G deployments. As of April 2021, Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband — a service that uses parts of wireless spectrum that allows for very fast 5G speeds — was available in 71 cities across the US. T-Mobile has been similarly aggressive in its 5G expansion plans. In August 2020, the carrier announced it was launching the country’s first commercial standalone 5G network, broadening T-Mobile’s 5G coverage by 30% and bringing some level of 5G service to an area encompassing almost 250M people.
Small cell deployment
Much of today’s wireless data is delivered through macrocells, known more commonly as cell towers. They provide the foundation for wireless connectivity and can serve thousands of mobile users within a radius of up to 40 miles.
While macrocells continue to serve the telecom industry well, they’re difficult to deploy and maintain. The costs of regulatory approval, construction, power, and maintenance make traditional macrocell towers a necessary burden for wireless connectivity. Small cells (or microcells) are growing contributors to wireless connectivity, supporting the wireless systems of the present and future. They serve fewer mobile users but are much easier to install and maintain. They’re also cheaper, more energy efficient, and require less red tape than macrocells. Small cells communicate wirelessly with macrocell towers, other small cells, and individual mobile devices. Certain small cells connect directly to fiber cables while others provide support to wireless mesh networks that improve wireless coverage. In rural areas, small cells can help extend coverage; in densely populated areas, they can strengthen capacity.
Some of the newest small-cell technology is hidden in plain sight. In Los Angeles, small cells have been deployed as part of smart streetlights to strengthen 4G networks.
Source: Microgrid Knowledge
In deploying these small cells, LA has also installed some of the necessary infrastructure required for tomorrow’s 5G networks. 5G will work best at short, unobstructed distances. A number of small cells will be required to serve the same area that a single macrocell can cover — though the small cells will provide much faster speeds.
However, while small-cell deployments have helped major telcos expand service offerings to more cities, doing so has been far from straightforward for some carriers. Speaking at the Wells Fargo Virtual 5G Forum in June 2020, T-Mobile’s President of Technology, Neville Ray, described the process as a “nightmarish scenario” due to conflicting permitting requirements from one municipal jurisdiction to another for small cell deployments. T-Mobile wants to expand its network of small cell systems from the 26,000 it owned as of June 2020 to between 40,000-50,000 deployments nationwide.
Other carriers have also run into problems at the local level. Sprint paid an $11.6M fine for failing to secure appropriate permits. AT&T received pushback due to the “needlessly messy” design of certain small cells, and the city of Santa Rosa, California, suspended Verizon’s deployment for similar reasons. The city of Hillsborough, California charged AT&T $60,000 in application fees for 16 nodes. It rejected the applications.
These types of roadblocks led to an FCC decision to reduce local authorities’ ability to charge carriers for small cell deployment.
High-frequency spectrum availability
In addition to fiber infrastructure and small cell deployment, the fastest 5G speeds also require radio waves with extremely high frequencies. These frequencies need line-of-sight within a small radius to successfully communicate. In other words, increasing demand for wireless coverage, speed, and consumption requires the use of new bands within the radio wave spectrum. While higher frequencies allow for faster data transmission, they’re unable to pass through certain structures. For example, satellite TV, which typically uses frequencies between 13-18 GHz, requires a direct line of sight to prevent disruptions. Heavy rainfall or an overgrown tree could impact viewing quality. For most 5G networks, the super high (3-30 GHz) and extremely high (30-300 GHz) bands will be used to deliver the Gbps speeds promised by wireless carriers.
Frequencies between 24 GHz and 86 GHz will be particularly popular. The FCC began auctioning off the rights for the 28 GHz 5G band in November 2018 to a total of 40 telecoms, wireless carriers, and other entities. Verizon did not take place in the auction because it already owns a license for part of the 28 GHz band, which it obtained through the acquisition of XO Communications.
The FCC began auctioning more of the 5G spectrum in early 2019 and held a record-setting auction for additional bandwidth in February 2021. Verizon bid $45B for 3,511 spectrum licenses, almost twice the second-largest bid from AT&T, which bid $23B for 1,621 licenses. T-Mobile also participated in the auction, bidding $9B for 142 licenses. Industry analysts had expected the auction for C-band spectrum, which covers 500 MHz of spectrum in the range of 3.7-4.2 GHz traditionally used by satellite TV providers, to achieve bids totaling around $60B, but the final figure was almost $81B.
With the use of a Spectrum Access System (SAS), carriers can dynamically access shared frequencies based on availability. This will allow carriers to scale bandwidth up and down based on network demand. It will also provide spectrum access to smaller commercial users that don’t license dedicated spectrum of their own. SAS providers like Federated Wireless ensure secure, interference-free bandwidth using proprietary software. Shared or licensed outright, these higher frequencies will require small cells to be arranged in a way where they maintain line-of-sight between mobile users or other small cells. While an abundance of small cells will help to maintain 5G coverage, another wireless configuration called “fixed wireless” will help deliver wireless coverage indoors.
BRINGING 5G INDOORS WITH FIXED WIRELESS
Though the high frequencies of 5G require a direct line-of-sight, “fixed wireless” will allow for cellular coverage within buildings and homes, without the use of cables or lines. Fixed wireless antennas are placed on top of homes and buildings to communicate with nearby small cells or macrocell towers. While these fixed wireless antennas must maintain line-of-sight with the nearby cells, they are able to extend cellular coverage into homes and buildings. These antennas may be connected by fiber to internal picocells or femtocells, which are used to relay wireless coverage to a small number of mobile users indoors. The wireless signal can also be converted to conventional Wi-Fi with the use of specially designed modems and wifi routers.
The ability to convert a cellular signal to Wi-Fi may provide wireless carriers with another way to compete with traditional ISPs like Comcast and Time Warner. Verizon, which already provides internet access to homes and businesses, rolled out fixed 5G wireless services in a handful of cities in 2018. These services provide an alternative to internet access delivered via fiber while maintaining comparable speeds. AT&T, while initially skeptical of the fixed wireless opportunity, announced in September 2018 that it would also begin to roll out a fixed wireless service and T-Mobile has also followed suit.
The sudden, dramatic increase in the number of people working remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic was a big driver of demand for fixed wireless internet services — with the number of connections increasing by 20%, according to Mobile Experts — and the market is set for strong growth in the coming years.
In April 2021, T-Mobile said that its 5G home internet service was available to approximately 30M homes across the US, of which roughly one-third are homes in rural communities. The carrier promised subscribers download speeds of between 50-100 Mbps — much slower than 5G’s full potential, but comparable to what many wired services offer and more than enough for a stable, high-res video call.
Verizon also made moves further into the FWA space in April 2021. Making use of the C-band spectrum Verizon bid for at auction in February, Verizon began the deployment of Ericsson and Samsung hardware to lay the groundwork for an ambitious expansion of its fixed wireless service. By 2023, Verizon hopes to serve more than 175M customers, with the ultimate goal of expanding to a service area encompassing 250M C-band customers by the end of 2024.
Barriers to 5G adoption
Even as 5G services become more common, the tech still has hurdles to overcome.
One major obstacle is that network providers will need to install a lot of new, and expensive, infrastructure. Another challenge is range. 5G often relies on high-frequency waves to gain its speed advantages over 4G, but this also entails shorter wavelengths — reducing the distance that 5G can carry a useful signal. With 5G signals tending to travel relatively short distances, network providers will need to deploy more antennas and base stations to ensure broad coverage. All this additional infrastructure will lead to high upfront costs for network providers — who are expected to spend $88B per year globally by 2023 on 5G network deployment, according to a report by Heavy Reading.
There are also some security and privacy concerns around 5G deployment. Alongside fears that compromised 5G infrastructure could create the potential for espionage, the new protocols being deployed may include some unforeseen vulnerabilities. For example, security researchers found shortcomings in 2018 in a 5G security protocol known as Authentication and Key Agreement (AKA) that in some cases could be used to steal sensitive information. As 5G evolves and is rolled out more extensively, other issues may emerge as the interlocking parts are more thoroughly scrutinized.
What’s next for 5G
As wireless carriers like Verizon and AT&T continue to expand access to 5G services in the coming year, the entire telecom industry is eager to capitalize on the shift.
Qualcomm unveiled new 5G semiconductor platforms in late 2020 to help telcos expand 5G access. Meanwhile, companies like Zayo are helping to lay the necessary fiber to support these 5G networks, while others like Siklu are providing fixed wireless antennas and small cells.
Manufacturers of 5G devices also play one of the more important roles in 5G adoption: device manufacturers need growing coverage, while wireless networks need a growing number of compatible devices.
In 2020, Apple added 5G support across its iPhone lineup — a major boost for widespread consumer adoption of 5G.
Even as 5G services become more broadly available in some form (lots of 5G customers still won’t be able to access the blistering speeds technically possible with the tech), 4G will still remain the default service in most places for a while yet. As for the broader industrial applications of 5G, estimates suggest that adoption will take off in the early 2020s.