Advent of the 5G era fuels wireless industry trends

The wireless industry has been defined by rapid change since its inception, and that should continue in the coming months and years. In fact, the pace of change may even increase, as carriers race to deploy 5G networks, as new media and content emerges to take advantage of 5G connections, and as individuals and industries expand use of internet of things technologies.

The much-anticipated deployment of 5G networks will be the driving force for the wireless industry, starting very soon.  The first commercial 5G network launches are coming this year to the US, and GSMA projects that by 2025, there will be roughly 200 million 5G mobile connections in the US and Canada, representing 49 percent of the total market.

5G networks will enable vastly improved download speeds, lower latency, and improved processing power. Verizon has reported that in its trials it achieved download speeds of 30 to 50 times faster than 4G connections, and some projections suggest it could be 100 times faster than existing networks.

Verizon’s Ronan Dunne said 5G is not “just another iteration of wireless innovation. Just as the next generation of the television industry reinvented content based on the unique properties of the medium itself, the potential of the fifth generation of wireless technology demands that we fundamentally rethink what can be done on a wireless platform.”

Verizon has announced that it will begin with a fixed wireless 5G offering, Verizon 5G Home, which it is touting as the world’s first commercial 5G broadband Internet service.  Verizon plans to initially launch the 5G Home service Oct. 1 in four markets – Indianapolis, Houston, Los Angeles, and Sacramento, Calif.  Verizon said the offering would provide typical speeds of 300 Mbps, with peak speeds of 1 gigabit per second.

Meanwhile, AT&T says it will have mobile 5G service up and running in a dozen markets by the end of 2018 – Atlanta; Charlotte, N.C.; Dallas; Houston; Indianapolis; Jacksonville, Fla.; Louisville, Ky.; New Orleans; Oklahoma City; Raleigh, N.C.; San Antonio; and Waco, Tex. Early in 2019, AT&T also plans to launch the service in Las Vegas; Los Angeles; Nashville, Tenn.; Orlando, Fla.; San Diego; San Francisco; and San Jose, Calif.

AT&T claims its service will be the first mobile 5G service to be made commercially available, as well as the first to be standards-based, as Verizon’s fixed service is using non-standards-based technology.

Sprint is eyeing the first half of 2019 for its 5G mobile rollout, which it plans to begin with service in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, and Washington.  Meanwhile, Sprint says it has teamed with LG Electronics to make available the first mobile 5G smartphone in the US in the first half of 2019. 

T-Mobile says it will have 5G networks deployed in 30 US cities by year-end, but that it won’t officially launch service until next year when true 5G-capable smartphones hit the market. T-Mobile also promises full nationwide 5G coverage by 2020.

If Sprint and T-Mobile are given clearance to complete their proposed merger, the combined company would be able to move more quickly and more broadly into 5G deployments, they argue.  They promise that by 2024 the combined company’s network would have double the total capacity and triple the combined 5G capacity of T-Mobile and Sprint after combining T-Mobiles 600 megahertz spectrum with Sprint’s 2.5 gigahertz spectrum holdings.  To win regulatory approval for the merger, the companies have promised $40 billion in investments and improved services for rural customers.

Even cable operator Charter Communications is pledging to enter the 5G market, albeit focusing initially on using 5G for wireless services within homes and businesses and using 5G fixed wireless technology to expand its coverage. Eventually, Charter plans to offer a mobile service as a mobile virtual network operator.

Enabling expansion of IoT, autonomous vehicles

The higher-capacity 5G networks are necessary to address the dramatic increases in mobile data consumption in the US.  Wireless industry trade association CTIA found that American used 15.7 trillion megabytes of mobile data in 2017, nearly four times amount used in 2014 and 40 times more than 2010.

Mobile operators expect that the initial demand for 5G services will likely come from consumers who are demanding additional mobile data bandwidth, according to GSMA. 

“The majority of mobile operators around the world, including those in the US, indicate that the provision of enhanced mobile broadband to the consumer market will be the core proposition for early 5G deployments, with massive IoT and ultra-reliable and low-latency communications gaining scale at a later stage,” says a recent GSMA report.  “Ultra-reliable and low-latency communications may be utilized in a number of emerging or future areas, such as autonomous vehicles, industrial and vehicular automation, remote medical surgery, and advanced AR and VR.”

The number of IoT connections in North America will triple from the roughly 1.9 billion at the end of 2017 to 5.9 billion in 2025, GSMA projects.  Consumer electronics, smart homes, and smart vehicles make up most of these connections now, with connected vehicle options a growth area for wireless service providers.  But GSMA projects that industrial IoT applications will overtake consumer IoT applications by 2025, driven by smart building, smart city, and manufacturing applications.

Investment demands & regulatory questions

The move to 5G networks requires extensive investment, which carriers have already begun and expect to continue for the next several years. CTIA reports that a record 323,448 cell sites were in operation at the end of 2017, up 52% over the last decade.  Observers project that as many as 800,000 new wireless antennas will need to be deployed within the next few years to support 5G deployment, which relies on small cell technology.

With the wide range of 5G-enabled applications requiring these small cells, navigating the regulatory approval process will be a major issue for wireless operators. Localities can be slow to clear wireless operators to replace existing wireless infrastructure or install new equipment, prompting the wireless industry to push for new legislation and regulation to streamline processes and enable them to move more quickly.  Among their desires are improved access to government facilities and rights-of-way, uniform standards for approval time frames, and limits on the fees that government agencies can levy. 

The FCC is working on regulations designed to streamline and expedite processes, and several state legislatures have passed legislation designed to address these concerns, but the debate is likely to continue in the many states that have not yet done so.

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Brian Hammond is technology news editor at SmartBrief.  He was previously managing editor at Telecommunications Reports International, a Washington-based publisher slate of news and research products for telecom insiders, including Telecommunications Reports, TRDaily, and Cybersecurity Policy Report. Brian has a B.A. from the University of Virginia and an MBA from Virginia Commonwealth University.