March 4, 2020 by Alan DiCicco

You Already Have 5G... Did You Notice?


In contrast to what last month’s meteoric Super Bowl ads might imply, 5G service rollout in 2019 continued at slow and steady pace. While the marketing rabbits sprinted ahead to secure first-with-5G ‘wins,’ the operations tortoises kept plowing ahead with more fiber and new 5G technology trials.

Verizon built out gigabit-speed capable millimeter wave 5G networks in densely populated areas. The operator reached a milestone 31 cities at the end of 2019, beating the goal of 30. Still, that’s a very small number of people living the 5G dream.

T-Mobile on the other hand, announced first-to-market US nationwide 5G coverage. That’s exciting, but T-Mobile 5G won’t be awe inspiring. In fact, it will be anti-climactic for the immediate future and may not provide speeds any faster than the current LTE network. Still, getting 5G radios operational across the nation is no small feat.

Every other carrier—both US and globally—is somewhere in between these two extremes. Making progress, but with some caveats.

What are 5G's key benefits?

As everyone has heard, 5G will support higher data rates up to 10 Gbps (in theory) allowing users to download and stream mobile broadband content faster than ever before. But 5G benefits are not one dimensional, limited to simply increased speed. 5G includes a set of performance gains that extend 5G applications in many directions.

In addition to speed, the 5G standard promises end-to-end delay of less than 1 ms (20 ms or more is typical in LTE networks), connectivity for up 1 million devices per km2, network reliability of 99.999 percent service uptime, mobility up to 500 kph, and low power operation that should allow IoT devices to run on battery for up to 10 years.

Yet, it’s important to remember that these are dimensions of 5G, not descriptions of what one single network on one single wavelength will provide. Multiple overlapping networks using a variety of wavelengths and built for specific applications are to be expected.

Challenges for 5G in 2020

There are many challenges to the rollout of 5G, not the least of which is still defining many of the 5G standards that will enable low latency, high reliability services that many IoT applications will require.

On a more fundamental level, 5G networks will need to be built using higher frequency spectrum necessary to carry the ultrafast broadband rates the consumer has been promised. High frequency signals don’t propagate as far as LTE networks, so the network needs more 5G radios. It’s as simple as that.

Macrocells with low frequency spectrum radios will be augmented by small cells for mid-band and millimeter wavelength spectrum, with estimates as high as 1000-to-1 density increases when indoor applications are considered. It turns out the biggest challenge to 5G adoption is deploying millions of new 5G small cells and all the fiber needed to transport the data back to mobile switching centers. 5G service that lives up to the dreams and commercial hype is gated by civil engineering, so we’ll be talking about 5G network rollout for years to come.  

What’s your perspective?

There’s plenty more to read and share on the Calix Perspectives pages. I look forward to hearing yours.