Can 5G replace everybody’s home broadband?

Artist's impression of how fast your house might one day be with 5G mobile broadband.

Enlarge / Artist’s impression of how fast your house might one day be with 5G mobile broadband.
Aurich Lawson / Getty

When it comes to the possibility of home broadband competition, we want to believe. And in the case of 5G mobile broadband, wireless carriers want us to believe, too. But whether or not technological and commercial realities will reward that faith remains unclear. As with 5G smartphones, the basic challenge here sits at the intersection of the electromagnetic spectrum and telecom infrastructure economics.

When delivered over millimeter-wave frequencies and their copious amounts of free spectrum, 5G can match the speed and latency of fiber-optic broadband, with downloads of 1 gigabit per second and ping times under 10 milliseconds. But on those frequencies of 24GHz and up, signals struggle to reach more than a thousand feet outdoors. Carriers can fix that by building many more cell sites, each with its own fiber backhaul, but a fiber-to-the-block build-out may not be appreciably cheaper than fiber-to-the-home deployments. And while residences don’t move and don’t mind wireless antennas larger than a shirt pocket—unlike individual wireless subscribers—residences also have walls that often block mmWave signals. (Presumably also unlike individual wireless subscribers.)

The other frequency flavors of 5G (the low- and mid-band ones) don’t suffer mmWave’s allergies to distance or drywall. But they also can’t match its speed or its spectrum availability—which in the context of residential broadband means they may not sustain uncapped bandwidth.

So as much as residential customers might yearn for an alternative to their local telecom monopoly—or for any form of high-speed access besides laggy connectivity from satellites in geosynchronous orbit—5G doesn’t yet rank as a sure thing. There’s a promise, but many things still need to go right for that promise to be fulfilled.

Or, as New Street Research analyst Jonathan Chaplin phrased things in an email: “If your fundamental question is ‘will 5G allow you to dump Comcast’ the answer is absolutely! Depending.”

Verizon’s bet on millimeter-wave broadband

Consider the 5G Home service that Verizon Wireless launched in parts of Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and Sacramento in October 2018 (later expanded to parts of Chicago).

At $70 a month for unlimited data—with a $20 discount if you have a $30 or higher Verizon Wireless smartphone plan—and with download speeds from 300 to 940 megabits per second, the service would compare well with cable even if so many cable Internet plans didn’t include data caps and slap on modem-rental fees.

Reddit threads about the service in Houston, Sacramento and elsewhere offer a mix of praise for its performance (including reports of upload speeds in the range of 200Mbps, significantly faster than what most cable services offer) and complaints about it not being available at individual redditors’ addresses.

Verizon's 5G Houston coverage as of December 2019, with 5G "Ultra Wideband" in dark pink. For an idea of how much of the Houston metro this covers, you can zoom out from the same location at <a href="https://www.google.com/maps/place/Houston,+TX/@29.733833,-95.429167,14z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x8640b8b4488d8501:0xca0d02def365053b!8m2!3d29.7604267!4d-95.3698028">this Google Maps link</a>.

Enlarge / Verizon’s 5G Houston coverage as of December 2019, with 5G “Ultra Wideband” in dark pink. For an idea of how much of the Houston metro this covers, you can zoom out from the same location at this Google Maps link.

“Towards the beginning of service, there were a few firmware issues with the modem Verizon provided, but they patched that within a month,” said a software engineer in Sacramento who asked not to be named. “Since then, there’s not been significant downtime that I noticed.”

“Overall I’m happy with my 5G,” wrote another 5G Home user in Houston who runs a crisis-management firm. “No downtime that I can remember. I don’t have my exact speeds but it seems pretty quick. More than enough for my TV streaming and Web surfing.”

“There were only a few short (less than 30 min?) cases of 5G service downtime that I can recall, and they were all mostly toward the beginning of my service, so I imagine they were able to fix those stability issues quickly enough,” wrote Vincent Garcia, a software engineer in Sacramento. “My speeds seem to be the same as when I first got the service: 300-600 Mbps down, 120-140 Mbps up.”

Garcia noted one other benefit: “One interesting thing I’ve noticed is that other ISPs in my area seem to have stepped up their game in terms of value (at least in terms of their initial contract period).”

One early fear raised about millimeter-wave 5G, that it would suffer from “rain fade” akin to what cuts out satellite-TV reception during showers, doesn’t yet appear to have emerged as a serious problem. Those Reddit discussions about Verizon’s service don’t mention it, while a Twitter search reveals no firsthand reports of rain-faded 5G.

Ashutosh Dutta, a research scientist at the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, pointed to a 2019 study by researchers at the Indian Institute of Information Technology Kalyani and the University of Calcutta’s Institute of Radio Physics and Electronics in West Bengal, India. They found that “proper fade mitigation techniques” can keep even heavy rain from disrupting millimeter-wave communication at frequencies up to 40 GHz. Verizon’s 5G Home, at 28 and 39 GHz, sits on the forgiving side of that line.

5G won’t change everything, or at least probably not your things

Artist's impression of millimeter-wave 5G speeds.

Enlarge / Artist’s impression of millimeter-wave 5G speeds.
Aurich Lawson / Getty

The long-touted fifth generation of wireless communications is not magic. We’re sorry if unending hype over the world-changing possibilities of 5G has led you to expect otherwise. But the next generation in mobile broadband will still have to obey the current generation of the laws of physics that govern how far a signal can travel when sent in particular wavelengths of the radio spectrum and how much data it can carry.

For some of us, the results will yield the billions of bits per second in throughput that figure in many 5G sales pitches, going back to early specifications for this standard. For everybody else, 5G will more likely deliver a pleasant and appreciated upgrade rather than a bandwidth renaissance.

That doesn’t mean 5G won’t open up interesting possibilities in areas like home broadband and machine-to-machine connectivity. But in the form of wireless mobile device connectivity we know best, 5G marketing has been writing checks that actual 5G technology will have a lot of trouble cashing.

A feuding family of frequencies

The first thing to know about 5G is that it’s a family affair—and a sometimes-dysfunctional one.

Wireless carriers can deploy 5G over any of three different ranges of wireless frequencies, and one of them doesn’t work anything like today’s 4G frequencies. That’s also the one behind the most wild-eyed 5G forecasts.

Millimeter-wave 5G occupies bands much higher than any used for 4G LTE today—24 gigahertz and up, far above the 2.5 GHz frequency of Sprint, hitherto the highest-frequency band in use by the major US carriers.

At those frequencies, 5G can send data with fiber optic speeds and latency—1.2 Gbps of bandwidth and latency from 9 to 12 milliseconds, to cite figures from an early test by AT&T. But it can’t send them very far. That same 2018 demonstration involved a direct line of sight and only 900 feet of distance from the transmitter to the test site.

Those distance and line-of-sight hangups still persist, although the US carriers that have pioneered millimeter-wave 5G say they’re making progress in pushing them outward.

“Once you get enough density of cell sites, this is a very strong value proposition,” said Ashish Sharma, executive vice president for IoT and mobile solutions at the wireless-infrastructure firm Inseego. He pointed in particular to recent advances in solving longstanding issues with multipath reception, when signals bounce off buildings.

There are a lot of "5G" stock images available. Some of them are more optimistic than others. This is one of the more optimistic ones.

Enlarge / There are a lot of “5G” stock images available. Some of them are more optimistic than others. This is one of the more optimistic ones.
Photographer is my life / Getty

Reception inside those buildings, however, remains problematic. So does intervening foliage. That’s why fixed-wireless Internet providers using millimeter-wave technology like Starry have opted for externally placed antennas at customer sites. Verizon is also selling home broadband via 5G in a handful of cities.

Below millimeter-wave, wireless carriers can also serve up 5G on mid- and low-band frequencies that aren’t as fast or responsive but reach much farther. So far, 5G deployments outside the US have largely stuck to those slower, lower-frequency bands, although the industry expects millimeter-wave adoption overseas to accelerate in the next few years.

“5G is a little more spectrally efficient than 4G, but not dramatically so,” mailed Phil Kendall, director of the service provider group at Strategy Analytics. He added that these limits will be most profound on existing LTE spectrum turned over to 5G use: “You are not going to be able to suddenly give everyone 100Mbps by re-farming that spectrum to 5G.”

And even the American carriers preaching millimeter-wave 5G today also say they’ll rely on these lower bands to cover much of the States.

For example, T-Mobile and Verizon stated early this year that millimeter-wave won’t work outside of dense urban areas. And AT&T waited until it could launch low-band 5G in late November to start selling service to consumers at all; the low-resolution maps it posted then show that connectivity reaching into suburbs.

Sprint, meanwhile, elected to launch its 5G service on the same 2.5GHz frequencies as its LTE, with coverage that is far less diffuse than millimeter-wave 5G. Kendall suggested that this mid-band spectrum will offer a better compromise between speed and coverage: “Not the 1Gbps millimeter-wave experience but certainly something sustainable well in excess of 100Mbps.”

The Federal Communications Commission is working to make more mid-band spectrum available, but that won’t be lighting up any US smartphones for some time.

(Disclosure: I’ve done a lot of writing for Yahoo Finance, a news site Verizon owns.)