Most people would agree that wireless coverage and data speeds have been getting steadily better during recent years. The differences between the major operators have narrowed. Certain key problem areas have been addressed: Verizon has alleviated capacity issues in major cities as a result of an aggressive densification program; AT&T has improved coverage and speeds with the deployment of numerous bands of spectrum; and T-Mobile’s rollout of 600 MHz has helped shore up deficiencies outside of major cities.
But just when you thought it was safe to go in the water again, the next phase of improvements to the wireless experience will be more variable, ‘hit or miss’, in nature. ‘Premium’ wireless experiences, delivered by the rollout of 5G, Wi-Fi 6, CBRS, and so on are going to be much more ‘hotspot’ in nature. It will be more like ‘islands’ of premium data speeds or reduced latency, rather than broad coverage. Take 5G as an example. The deployment of mmWave is occurring primarily in cities, and only in select parts of those cities. mmWave, for the foreseeable future, will be more like a ‘super-hotspot’, like a Wi-Fi access point that works mainly outdoors over a radius of a couple of hundred feet. Even within that radius, quality will be variable, given the sensitivity of mmWave to all sorts of structures, materials, and conditions.
It’s not going to be all that different with the deployment of 5G in other bands, broadly known as ‘sub-6 GHz’. For the next couple of years, 5G NR rollouts are going to be more on a market-by-market basis, and there will be significant variability from one city to the next, as well as differences in operator deployment strategies. Add the ‘marketing’ angle to this, such as what operators call 5GE, 5G+, 5G Ready, and so on, and things will be even more complicated. Suffice it to say that there will be significant variability in the 5G experience, depending not only on what city, but even within that city, whether outdoors or indoors, and also depending on the operator. The spots where the 5G experience is truly revolutionary will be limited to ‘islands’ of coverage, or select venues or locations where operators have decided to showcase 5G or where there is a particular use case.
The ‘hotspot’ nature of wireless quality improvements is not limited to the rollout of 5G. We’re just now seeing the rollout of Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax). It was encouraging that the iPhone 11 supports Wi-Fi 6. This new generation of Wi-Fi delivers significant improvements in speed and coverage, and does a much better job of supporting a large number of devices connected to a hot spot. But we’re in the early stages of device certification. And the deployment of Wi-Fi 6 requires the purchase of new Wi-Fi access points. The cycle for Wi-Fi equipment replacement/upgrades tends to be lengthy, mainly because Wi-Fi works well in most locations, most of the time. There’s no great urgency or particularly compelling use case driving the Wi-Fi 6 deployment cycle. Don’t expect your cable company to be knocking on your door offering new Wi-Fi equipment anytime soon. Rather, for the next couple of years, Wi-Fi 6 deployments will be case-driven, driven mainly by capacity-constrained locations, such as airports.
The other ‘hotspot’ on the block is CBRS, the shared spectrum at the 3.5 GHz band. We are in very early days with respect to CBRS, with a handful of deployments. For the next year or so, we are likely to see CBRS deployed at particular venues, such as stadiums, shopping malls, and convention centers. Mainly as a speed/capacity augmentation at high traffic locations. Some enterprises might also deploy CBRS. As CBRS matures and the PAL auctions occur, deployments will become more widespread, and permanent in nature.
Private LTE is another example of the ‘hotspot’ theme. We’re also in early days here, but in the coming years, we will see the deployment of Private LTE solutions by enterprises. Even there, the capability will only be at specific locations, and with a limited footprint at those locations.
The bottom line is that the next phase of improvements to the wireless experience — whether delivered by some flavor of 5G, evolution of LTE-Advanced, CBRS, Private LTE, or Wi-Fi 6 — will be deployed and delivered on a piecemeal basis, rather than broad coverage at the flick of a switch.
The other aspect of this is that these deployments will be for more specific use cases – such as fixed wireless access, the need to support high-traffic locations or venues, or ‘showcase’ locations to deliver a premium wireless experience using 5G, such as for multi-player gaming, e-sports, or AR/VR. An example: Verizon’s deployment of 5G at 13 NFL Stadiums.
Given the ‘hotspot’ nature of these new wireless experiences, I’m hoping that the operators are more forthcoming and transparent about where these services are available. With 5G for example, it’s not OK to just say ‘mobile 5G is available in X city, or in select areas of X city’. Customers should be able to easily determine 5G coverage at least at the ‘neighborhood’ level, with some information on how good that experience is, compared to prevailing 4G LTE. Icons on the phone should accurately effect what that experience is, at a particular location.
The next phase of wireless will feature some pretty remarkable improvements in coverage, speed, latency, and capacity. But these enhanced experiences will be mainly in specific locations or areas, rather than broad-based, at least for the next couple of years. Customers should adjust their expectations accordingly, and consider this in their purchase decisions. They should also press their service providers for more granular information on what sort of experience can be expected, and where.