Last week, the 5G Americas organization hosted a gathering in Dallas of senior executives from major wireless operators, equipment suppliers, and 80+ industry analysts to discuss wireless network evolution, with an emphasis on 5G. I’ve been attending this annual meeting for 10+ years, and find it a valuable annual benchmark for the state of wireless networks and where they’re going. With roundtables on topics such as eICIC, things got quite into the techie weeds, but I’d like to share some overarching themes I came away with from this productive two days.
One major change in thinking from a year ago is that it appears that the existing bands could well lead on 5G, with millimeter wave (mmWave) being secondary. Operators are anxious to deploy some flavor of 5G sooner rather than later, and equipment for “non-standalone” 5G, which would use sub-6GHz spectrum, could be ready as soon as next year. Greenfield 5G networks based on new 3GPP standards are more likely toward 2020. Second, there appears to be greater emphasis on providing broader coverage and some degree of mobility in 5G, which would favor sub- 6 GHz spectrum, at least initially.
Another key development, which I wrote about in October, is that the so-called “mid-bands” are emerging as a significant potential force in the future of wireless networks and in 5G. Yes, AT&T and Verizon have amassed a strong collection of assets in the mmWave bands, and there will be auctions of additional mmWave spectrum in late 2018 or more likely 2019. But the 3.5 GHz band (CBRS) is emerging as an important potential global band for 5G. China’s emphasis on 3.5 GHz for 5G is one of the key driving forces here. Additionally, there is momentum behind allocating spectrum in the 3.7-4.2 GHz band for mobile broadband, which, combined with the 3.5 GHz band, would create a significant swath of capacity in a part of the spectrum more favorable to mobile, in some ways.
It is remarkable that we are even considering mmWave for 5G, given that five years ago, many might have considered mmWave as technically unfeasible for anything other than point-to-point services. My sense is that although it has become technically possible to use the mmWave for an important piece of next generation wireless services, it remains an enormous math and physics challenge, especially if mobility is added to the mix. One of the most telling quotes from the meeting is that “real life has foliage”. When we got into nitty gritty discussions about how in New York City the ‘avenues’ are easier to deploy than the ‘streets’, it became apparent that there is still a lot of technology that needs to be developed and refined between now and the early 2020s, when broad deployment of 5G is planned. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because Gigabit LTE, which is a key part of the LTE-Advanced roadmap, offers many of the performance characteristics of what we have considered to be ‘5G’. So, for the foreseeable future, we will see islands of 5G deployed in a sea of steadily improving 4G, and/or advanced LTE services marketed as 5G.
“It takes a year to get a permit for something that takes an hour to put up” was the other most telling quote from the meeting, reflecting the universally echoed frustration at the challenge of deploying small cells at scale. The wireless industry is still smarting from a major setback in California, where the governor vetoed a bill that would have streamlined policies for small cell deployments. More than any technical obstacle, the high cost and lengthy timeframes involved in siting small cells are the greatest challenge in improving wireless network coverage, speed, and capacity. A related issue has been the slowdown in expanding fiber deployments, which are needed to connect the small cells and provide greater wireless capacity. There are serious alarm bells being sounded here, and a genuine worry that the U.S. might fall behind other countries, where regulators have played a more active role in facilitating the deployment of wireless infrastructure.
This bridges into another, larger concern, which is about the future of U.S. leadership in wireless networks. Although we cannot boast of the best roads, trains, or even fixed broadband networks, the United States has led on wireless. Some 73% of U.S. wireless subscribers are on LTE — among the highest in the world— and we have four national facilities-based LTE networks. But Japan, South Korea, China, and other countries are moving quickly on 5G, due in part to a more activist industrial policy. The universal fiber networks in Japan and South Korea provide them with a head start on 5G. Our stalled politics, un-ending litigation, high cost structure, and even some byproducts of industry consolidation are starting to become serious inhibitors to U.S. competitiveness in networks. This was a thread of several side and mealtime conversations at what was overall an optimistic gathering last week in Dallas.