No, 5G is Not Likely to Answer Your Broadband Dreams

Listen to the mobile network operators promoting the arrival of 5G today, and one thing is clear: whatever your problem may be, it is the solution.

Massive bandwidth. Super speed (also known as low latency). Did I mention massive bandwidth and super speed? You will be able to download and watch three movies at once. Your grades will improve, you will get the promotion you want, lose weight and become an Instagram star.

If only it were so.

When it comes to 5G hype, we all need a filter. An organization called the World Teleport Association (WTA) recently published a report that offers one. WTA is an industry trade group for commercial providers of satellite communications, and the report aims to advise these companies on realistic opportunities in the new technology. But many of its conclusions are equally useful to community leaders seeking better broadband solutions for their people and employers. Here is my summary.

5G actually is a big deal

In 2018, 5G was mostly talk and there was not a single 5G handset for sale anywhere in the world. By the end of 2019, 5G handsets had been shipped to nearly 18 million subscribers. That makes it the fastest-growing generation of wireless tech in history. If you haven’t seen much evidence of that in your life, that’s because most of the growth is coming from China, followed by South Korea and Japan, where governments have pushed the technology hard.

5G will be for cities and suburbs first

The new networks achieve their blinding capacity and speed through many remarkable technology advances. But at their heart lie the laws of physics. The “cells” of 5G, each with a radio base station at its center, are much smaller than 4G or 3G cells and they pack a lot of transmission capacity into that smaller space. That’s how they deliver so much capacity and speed. Once you understand this “small cell” design, it becomes clear that 5G will deploy first in dense cities, where each of those many small cells contains lots of paying subscribers. As city centers begin to saturate, network operators will expand into the closest and largest surrounding suburbs, even though each small cell will not be as profitable. Rural areas, with fewer subscribers scattered farther apart, will be at the far end of the line as usual.

5G will serve industries in the countryside

There is one important exception to this rule. Industries of all kinds are keen to use private 5G networks to accelerate the automation of factories, oil rigs, process plants, wind and solar energy stations, mines and large farms. Military organizations are already beginning to deploy private 5G networks for operating bases. These networks will use the capacity and speed to connect equipment, monitor its performance, and provide the remote control and close integration that improves efficiency. So, rural areas will probably see 5G deployments, but they will be closed networks supporting business and government operations.

If your community is not already well served by broadband providers, 5G is unfortunately not going to make a difference. What will make a difference is your community’s decision not to put up with the status quo – to begin the hard, patient work of changing the conditions that hold you back. No, it doesn’t mean repealing the laws of physics. It means moving the dial in the right direction. ICF has lessons to share, and you can start sharing here.

Robert Bell
Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research, analysis and content development activities.

Showing 1 reaction

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.