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White Paper: Evaluating 5G Technology

July 10, 2017

Executive Summary

The Internet has had profound impacts on nearly every area of our lives, including education, retail, healthcare, public safety, and entertainment. The Internet has transformed how we communicate, the size and scope of our global economy, and even our political system. We are on the cusp of the next Internet evolution – the Internet of Things. Over the next 10 years, the Internet will evolve into a network that overwhelmingly connects “things” rather than people. Customers will continue to demand faster speeds and higher capacities as telehealth becomes more commonplace as a means of medical care, as education increasingly migrates online, as Ultra High Definition TV (UHDTV) becomes commonplace, and with the dramatic growth of connected devices of all kinds needing Internet access.

When considering the most effective and efficient use of public and/or private resources to invest in networks, it is necessary to understand these current and future user demands to determine the type of networks needed to meet these increasing demands over the life of the network assets. As providers of all kind compete for consumers, not all broadband technologies are created equal. Some broadband access technologies offer the promise of mobility – an important factor for many consumers. Others can be installed quickly and at somewhat lesser cost upfront, but their ongoing costs may be high – and the need may soon arise to reinvest in the network if demand is expected to increase, limiting or eviscerating any upfront cost savings. Still others are better suited to meet consumer and business broadband demands of the future.

Satellite broadband, for example, will continue to suffer from limitations that are difficult or impossible to overcome if one is attempting to keep pace with the many applications that drive consumer demand.1 Meanwhile, terrestrial wireless carriers have pinned much of their hopes on new, emerging standards often referred to as 5th Generation or “5G” wireless technology. In fact, large wireless companies are already hyping so-called “5G” deployments, despite the fact that we are years away from even just a 5G standard, let alone deployment. Today, 5G is primarily a marketing term, and often a misleading one. When the average consumer hears about a “5G” deployment, the consumer may assume it means that gigabit cell phones are around the corner. But this is not the case. Companies are misusing “5G” today to describe small cell 4G (4th Generation) technology being used to fill gaps or relieve congestion, or for technology to provide faster indoor-only wireless connections using millimeter wave spectrum for or in competition with Wi-Fi.

An engineering analysis indicates that true 5G wireless technologies will, like their predecessor technologies, be an important and very useful complement to wireline networks; certainly in the mobile context, it is reasonable to expect significant consumer demand for services that offer the promise of higher speeds and greater reliability. And, to be clear, there will be discrete situations in which the use of 5G in connection with fixed wireless offerings will be useful and necessary to extend service initially or perhaps to enable service to certain locations that are unlikely to ever receive wireline service in the near future due to construction costs or some other factor.

But from a technical perspective, even in a fixed context, wireless technologies should be viewed as a complement – a tool in a toolkit – rather than a viable widespread substitute for wireline broadband networks. In fact, newer wireless technologies will rely more heavily than any predecessor wireless technology upon far deeper penetration of wireline facilities. Undoubtedly, 5G wireless technologies will result in better broadband performance than 4G wireless technologies and will offer much promise as a mobile complement to fixed services, but they still will not be the right choice for delivering the rapidly increasing broadband demanded by thousands or millions of households and businesses across America.

Previous analysis of 4th generation wireless networks2 clearly demonstrated how these networks, even with generous capacity assumptions for the future, will have limited broadband capabilities, and inevitably will fail to carry the fixed broadband experience that has been and will be demanded by subscribers accustomed to their wireline counterparts. Although there is understandably much anticipation today about phenomenal possible speeds for 5G wireless networks tomorrow, they will continue to have technical shortcomings that will, like their predecessor wireless networks, render them very useful complements but poor substitutes for wireline broadband. These technical challenges include:

  • Spectral limitations: 5G networks will require massive amounts of spectrum to accomplish their target speeds. At the lower frequencies traditionally used for wide area coverage, there is not enough spectrum. At the very high frequencies proposed for 5G where there may be enough spectrum, the RF signal does not propagate far enough to be practical for any wide area coverage. This is particularly important in rural areas where customer concentration is far, far less than what can be expected in densely populated urban areas where 5G may offer greater promise.
  • Access Network Sharing: This is not a good solution for continuous-bit-rate (CBR) traffic such as video, which will make up 82% of Internet traffic by 2020.
  • Economics: When compared to a 5G network that can deliver significant bandwidth using very high, very short-haul frequencies, Fiber to the Premises (FTTP) is often less
    expensive and will have lower operational costs. This is particularly true when one considers how much fiber deployment will be needed very close to each user to merely
    enable 5G.
  • Reliability: Wireless is inherently less reliable than wireline, with significantly increased potential for impairments with the very high frequencies required by 5G.

All broadband providers today – wired and wireless alike – realize that the way to increase broadband capability is to increase the amount of fiber in their network. Landline providers are replacing their copper cable with fiber, cable operators are replacing their coax cable with fiber, and even wireless providers are actually replacing their wireless networks with fiber by placing their towers (or small cells) closer to the customer.

Today, wireless networks rely heavily on the wireline network, and this reliance will only increase with 5G since only a small portion of the last-mile customer connection (i.e., the “local loop”) will use wireless technologies. 5G networks are predominantly wireline deep fiber networks, with only a very small portion of their network using a wireless technology. This small wireless portion of the network determines the ultimate broadband capacity of the network, since it is the network bottleneck. As an analogy, we all have been on a multilane highway when road construction or an accident required traffic to be funneled into a single lane. This is similar to what happens when the broadband capacity of a fiber is constricted by a 5G wireless network when serving a customer.

In an attempt to address such challenges, there are three basic ways broadband capacity can be increased in wireless networks from a technical perspective. These are:

  1. Improve the Signal to Noise Ratio to permit better modulation techniques
  2. More spectrum – or more re-use of the same spectrum in the same cell
  3. Fewer users per cell

The transmit power allowed is controlled by federal regulation. Noise and interference will not improve, and in fact will only worsen as more and more transmitters are added in the closely spaced adjacent cells. Without improvement of the former over the latter, higher efficiency modulation techniques would only be usable by a very few cell users, providing little improvement in overall capacity. Because of this, 5G wireless increases the broadband capabilities through the use of more spectrum and fewer users per cell. Unfortunately, the only new spectrum available for use by 5G is so high in frequency that the propagation loss and environmental impacts are extremely significant. These high frequencies also have poor penetration capabilities.

To overcome these shortcomings, the 5G wireless cells must be placed very close to the customer (often within 300 to 500 feet), which makes 5G particularly impractical for most rural applications. In the following pages, we explore how one can assess and validate the capabilities of proposed 5G wireless network deployments in real world environments and determine where they may or may not be practical or economical to deploy, as well as whether they will indeed fulfill the consumer demand they purport to achieve. But first, we begin by determining what broadband speed and capacity a broadband network needs to deliver to meet customer needs and be competitive in the future.

Download the full VPS 5G White Paper here.