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The Race to 5G between Fixed and Mobile. Which will be deployed as 5G First?
Which will be first to market, deployed, and be 5G? Which system could be the one to bring 5G to the market, for real? Will they deploy fixed broadband to provide service to homes and call that 5G or will they bring the mobile systems up to a 5G standard before the fixed is deployed?
Oh boy, a race for 5G! There is a race. The real race is between who will deploy fixed and mobile 5G systems. Of course, here in the states, the carriers are all racing to 5G, they will say they have 5G regardless of what criteria they meet. There are so many things we expect from 5G, but a new format is only part of the picture.
But hey, who am I to judge, all I want to do is deploy the stuff. It may be fixed; which AT&T and Verizon are betting heavy on. It could be mobile, which I think T-Mobile and Sprint will gamble on first. Who will deploy first?
It’s funny, but fixed doesn’t go anywhere, how would it win when Mobile can anywhere? OR, we could look at throughput, fixed generally is faster than Mobile because it’s dedicated to a few users, not many and the antenna is usually focused on a smaller area. So, when you look at those aspects, it could go either way. But I don’t mean any of that. What we’re talking about here is what will get deployed commercially first and be called 5G! We all want to legitimately call something 5G because it’s a higher G than 4G. Oh boy, isn’t 5G great? What system will win the race to the end customer as 5G and be used profitably? That’s the race I am looking at for this article. The race to the real world for a 5G system.
What’s the difference?
For those of you that don’t know the difference, here it is in a nutshell.
Fixed wireless generally is a fixed link between 2 points. It could be a point to point or point to multipoint. The end unit, the user’s device, is generally a fixed radio that provides internet connection inside the customer’s location. It does not move but stays in one location. Look at it like your cable modem in your home or your cable box, only a wireless connection.
Mobile would be a site that connects to mobile devices, like your smartphone. They are mobile and can be used anywhere there is coverage.
Fixed Wireless Overview
Let’s start with fixed, what is the business case? It’s to provide broadband to the customers that typically would rely on cable or DSL or someone to provide them an internet connection. It’s now going to be viable to have something in the cmwave or mmwave that could be multiuser and still provide over 100Mbps to a home or small business and small cells out there. Don’t forget, we still need fiber to the unit, but now we can take that fiber strand and send it to multiple homes without running fiber to the home, it would be a wireless link from the pole or building to the home or small business. How cool is that? No more wires to the home, other than power, but that could be underground.
This means the business case for broadband to the home, (BBTTH), should, in theory, cost less than running fiber to a home overhead or underground. No more trenching to every home hoping that they will sign up. Just get the fiber to a pole on the street, or a large building then shoot it to the homes.
Sound familiar, well it should. The Wi-Fi companies and the wireless ISPs have been doing this for years. Only now people want more. Most ISPs did what they could to get 1Mbps to a home, maybe they could get 10 Mbps. However, in today’s world of massive data usage, they want 50 or 60 Mbps to the home. Times have changed, and customers are way more demanding. They won’t settle for “good enough,” unless they are buying a phone from Sprint, then within 1% is good enough.
So, the fixed business case looks good if it can be appropriately scaled. However, I believe only the carriers can pull this off with success. They have the pockets and the grit to make it happen. They also have the name. Why? I am glad you asked.
There are many wireless ISPs across the USA. They have found ways to help the underserved areas. They have deployed in the license-free spectrum, ISM bands, where Wi-Fi is. This worked to a point. Many of them did not realize what it would take to install on a tower or building, in fact, many of those companies are run by IT people who ventured into the wireless carrier space. They quickly realized it takes deep pockets to maintain crews to do this work.
There are successful companies that deployed Wi-Fi internet access, like Boingo, they have done an outstanding job. They built a model around resorts and airports that work. People are willing to pay for Wi-Fi in those cases. There is a need.
The problem with WISP, Wireless ISP, is that the bandwidth service could be up and down based on weather conditions. License-free spectrum is low power and prone to interference. That is one of the issues they must deal with.
Side note – I worked for a WISP years ago and the business model was not great. The expense was high, and the payback was not what we had hoped. In fact, we made more money off IT services than we did off subscriptions. However, we did have subscribers. I soon left that venture to work with an installation and integration company. We did many installs for WISPs, many who could not pay the bills. It was very frustrating. It’s a tough business, especially when people are thinking that license-free spectrum is so valuable. The reality is, it’s free for a reason. Low power and cheap equipment make it tough to roll out, although conventional business wisdom tells us differently. You see, the services are still expensive, and if you want to go on a tower owned by a big boy, like American Tower or Crown Castle Inc, you still must pay premium rates. All OpEx expenses that can bleed you dry. I’ve worked with many companies that tried to figure it out, and many of them failed. Others pivoted into something more reliable. It’s not rewarding, and the spectrum in the US is monopolized by the carriers, the deeper the pockets they have, the more spectrum they have.
That brings me back to the fixed wireless spectrum. You can learn more here, but the spectrum to be used for this is expected to be in the higher bands, like 24GHz, 39GHz, 60GHz and 70 GHz ranges. Those spectrum ranges are almost entirely LOS, Line of Sight. The carriers are convinced that can change with technology, but I haven’t seen it yet.
All the same, look at the feeding frenzy that AT&T and Verizon went on bidding for 28 to 31GHz and 39GHz spectrum. They went crazy to acquire what they could. I would say the licenses will help them deploy across the US to homes everywhere, in theory. They must make the technology work. At least the OEMs must find a way to create proof that it works. I think the carriers already have a business case built.
They already ventured in the FTTH, Fiber to the Home, space and it was expensive. They could not lower the price of deployment like they hoped. They probably thought they could because they drove down tower work so far, but fiber deployment is expensive and tedious. This is all in addition to attaching to someone’s home, which they will sue the installer if something is messed up. It’s not pretty, but the townships, cities, and everyone else wants a piece of the pie in the order of fees, permits, and other various expenses.
Whereas the mobile case is merely upgrading the existing sites to new equipment that is 5G ready. Maybe with all the other features like massive MIMO, carrier aggregation, and so on. All the things that need to be installed bringing broadband everywhere. This should bring the mobile sites up to over 100Mbps. Why waste time on fixed if your mobile carrier can do it and provide you a device to make your home a hotspot? Just do it! If they already have one of your devices, then they may get another one and cancel their cable service or another internet provider at their home. I would! Although, I live in a suburban area so that won’t happen for 3 or more years, will it? NO!
However, this is an expectation of 5G, broadband everywhere. While the carriers may not be excited to put even more money into their sites, they have no choice if they want to compete. Your wireless carrier fee is feeding this expansion! The carriers need to deploy all that they can to remain competitive.
The wireless broadband is the way that the millennials get their data. They rely on the carrier for almost everything.
I feel if the mobility broadband happens and they try to use it for fixed, then it may overload the sites. At least with the spectrum that most carriers have. They know this, that’s why the big boys want to roll out new systems to support the home internet case. The only exception that I see is Sprint. However, T-Mobile might get creative with their 600MHz spectrum to get it into the homes of the public, if it’s enough. It may or may not be. However, if any carrier could do more with less, then they are the real winner. I think they could if they plan it properly, but I’m sure they know better, (at least they think they do).
However, with mobility systems, you could deploy a broadband solution to the home as easy as putting a device in it and setting it up for Wi-Fi. I would think something like Sprint and Airspan’s Magic box would be perfect for something like this. It would be easy for anyone to buy it and install it. Just plug it in and see if you have coverage. Awesome and easy, just what any consumer wants without going to all the trouble of fixed wireless.
Execution is the key!
I bring up execution because, with mobility, they will need to have the devices ready. When I worked for Qualcomm rolling out the FLO TV system. That was live TV to the device, a cool concept which was not a great idea at that time. However, with all of that said, a huge mistake they made was to bring the system live with only a few devices out there that had FLO TV on them. They were so worried about the system they forgot that if there are no devices, then no one can watch it. You need to execute the plan from end to end. Having a great system means nothing if the customers can’t get what you’re delivering. In this case, it’s broadband. Customers are happy with broadband. They like the idea of 5G, but if they have 100Mbps to their home, they are so much happier and could care less what G it is, or if its fiber or wireless. Just make it reliable and consistent.
Why compare fixed to mobile?
I think we need to, so we can better understand which 5G system will be rolling out first. I think the mobile system will be looked at as another upgrade and overhaul of the existing mobile system. Whereas the fixed wireless system could be a new division that brings in new revenue for the carriers. The revenue that standard ISPs and cable companies had before.
When you look at the business models, they are very different. We want to see where 5G will be applied first, in a fixed scenario or on the existing mobile system.
Fixed Pros and Cons
The pros of fixed are that it’s a new revenue stream or at least a way to cut the costs of fiber to the home. If they can run the fiber to a pole and connect 5 to 20 houses off one radio, then they saved a whole lot of money in fiber installation, deployment, and permits. Pros are cost savings and new revenue.
Cons are it’s new, and it will need to be tested, and chances are there may be problems. They are also running into the cable companies’ mainstay. The cable companies have monopolies all over the place, and the carriers need to figure out how to wedge themselves into those markets. It won’t be easy. The carrier will invest heavily to do this even without running fiber everywhere.
Pros and cons are it’s all new equipment. Why would that be both? New equipment is expensive to deploy and needs to be put on sites. That means new fiber runs, site acquisition, planning, installation and all the expenses that go with it. Even if it’s an existing site, all those details must be worked. However, there is no legacy equipment to remove or replace. New system installs are generally clean and easy to work with when there are no customers or just a few customers. Like I said, pro and con.
Mobile Pros and Cons
Mobile will eventually become 5G, but there is more to it then just upgrading the sites. If 5G needs to be a new format other than LTE, let’s say a 5G LTE, then the upgrade is going to be costly. The system must work with 3G, 4G, and 5G. All of them. No easy thing. I believe 4G and 5G will not be a problem, but any carrier holding on to 3G has a significant problem. Let’s look at Sprint, I am not aware of VoLTE for mass deployment, so they need 3G CDMA to keep the voice going. Yes, many people still make calls on their smartphones, and I am one of them. This means that the carrier must support all the systems until the migration is complete.
Migration isn’t just about the sites. The devices, like smartphones, all have to be ready for the new system. Ask T-Mobile how many devices on the street have 600MHz in them. I would guess less than 100. Maybe ask AT&T how many devices have the FirstNet spectrum in them. Again, a meager number.
The site work isn’t all that has to be thought of for mobility; the UE devices need to be ready for the new service.
So, the pro is there will be more bandwidth at existing sites, new features, and bragging rights. All the carriers want to have 5G running on their system just to say they have 5G running on their system. I want to say that, and I don’t have a system.
The con is that the equipment at the site must be upgraded. Chances are these are all live sites, would be service affecting to customers. Not an easy thing. It may be day work or maintenance window work. Either way, chances of a live site going down for some maintenance are 100%. Chances are good the migration could be done in steps, and I see massive MIMO being deployed. That means that the antenna and RRH will be replaced with an active antenna. Good and bad. Good because the form factors and weight will be less, along with fewer coax connections. The bad is that all the leases will need to be amended, tower work has to be done, and CapEx goes up for a few years during deployment.
Another con is the UE devices will need to be sold to customers. There may be a boost when it first comes out, but the legacy users will hold on, and it will be a long time before they can sunset old products. To see the results, users must have new devices.
Pro and cons are the backhaul and fronthaul. Carriers will need more fiber at the site. Carriers will need new routers to handle the amped-up broadband. Guess what; more backhaul bandwidth means that the fiber provider may need to light up more strands. While this sounds awesome, more bandwidth, for the carrier it’s more OpEx expense, meaning that monthly costs go up at every site. Imagine if you have 15,000 sites and the monthly cost for backhaul alone goes up to $1,000 each month. That’s $15 MILLION dollars each month, which adds up to $180 MILLION dollars a year, for the rest of that sites life. That’s going to be hard to pay for with unlimited data plans.
Up front, fixed will claim 5G first but mobility always wins because the devices are already in the hand of mass users. Working devices can see results immediately, even if it’s 4G LTE, if people see 100Mbps of throughput, then it’s close enough to be called 5G, even though it’s not. People want to see results immediately.
However, in the long run, both models win because the revenue streams will continue to increase for all the systems. The fixed will be new revenue competing against the cable companies. Let’s go deeper than the carriers. In the fixed arena AT&T and Verizon have the
edge with spectrum and a plan. They are testing. They already secured spectrum. They will win the race there.
Cable companies will be hurt by this new push, the way I see it. I am not sure what their defense will be, but I am sure they will think of something.
In mobility, T-Mobile is already pushing to win the broadband race. I would love to say Sprint has a chance because they have so much spectrum, but can they spend the money to make it happen? I don’t know.
I’ll tell you this, no matter which system is deployed, the fiber and router companies win. The new bandwidth demands require a lot of bandwidth. So, the FTTP, Fiber to the Premise, suppliers like Zayo and ExteNet will be winners. Fiber deployment teams also win. Fiber providers are the real winners though; they will get more money for the fiber that is out there. It will be a big win for them for years to come as broadband needs increase, or at least maintain.
Deployment teams will get plenty of business for the next 3 or 4 years. All the carriers want to deploy. They will all do design, testing, and integrations. It all has to be deployed.
Asset owners should get a lot of business, but let’s clarify. The equipment on the tower will get smaller and lighter. There should be less equipment on the towers and rooftops. It doesn’t mean it can’t do more; it just means that it is in a smaller package.–
The site acquisition teams will also get a lot of work, no surprise, they are needed at every turn for the permitting, the zoning, the planning, the lease amendments. The carriers try to bring this in-house, but they still need feet on the street in the local markets thanks to all the permitting requirements.
The carriers are looking for new revenue streams. I think that is why AT&T and Verizon paid billions for the 24 and 28 GHz spectrum. I think they know they must break into new markets as cost-effectively as possible to build a new market up. If they already have this spectrum, that’s something to work with. It’s all good! It’s one more market they think they can tap.
The mobile market is not yet saturated. They are looking for new revenue there, such as cloud services and IOT services. That is all based on quantity, meaning they need a lot of devices to make some money.
AT&T is going to rely on the FirstNet business to happen and bring in some government money that Verizon had tapped for so long. However, remember that FirstNet participation is voluntary so Verizon may be able to keep most of its customers. That’s another article.
The race matters, but not necessarily for technology, but for the future of revenue for the carriers. They know that if they can do it first, the customers will try it just to say they are on a 5G system. Then they will work hard to build momentum.
If you want to learn more:
- Fixed Wireless is a Focal Point of 5G
- 5G Fixed Wireless Spectrum and Why it Matters
- Fixed Wireless Access Overview
- Learning 5G in the Real World
- The 5G Deployment Plan Handbook
Be smart, be safe, and pay attention!
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