5G – What’s the Killer App?

Every decade, a new generation of wireless promises to be better than the generation before.  It started in the 1980s with the first generation (1G) and we’ve now arrived at the latest generation of wireless (5G).  Android users have been able to experience 5G for nearly two years, and now iPhone users will join the crowd and begin asking the question… What can I do with 5G? 

5G Phones – No Killer App

 The answer to the last question depends on your country and carrier.  In many 5G deployments around the world, 5G speeds are slightly faster than 4G.  In other deployments, 5G speeds may be considerably faster than 4G, but coverage is often limited.  We will come back to this shortly because it requires an understanding of 5G frequencies.  But the key point is that with only slight improvements in speeds thus far, there is a lack of 5G-only applications that drive people to stores to buy 5G phones.  In short, it still lacks a killer app.  Your 4G phone is normally capable of doing the same thing a 5G phone can do.  

5G Home Internet – The Killer App 

Replacing a fixed line with wireless into a home for Internet and TV is a killer app.  It’s something that cable companies are extremely aware of and moving into wireless with 5G.  They watched as landline phone companies lost subscribers to wireless phones in 3G and 4G.  These speeds were not fast enough to compete with data services to power multiple TVs and computers in a home.  However, that changes with 5G.  It’s fast enough to go wireless for all devices.  It’s the killer app, but it remains elusive because of coverage issues for high-bandwidth 5G.  

Understanding 5G Frequencies

5G has many, many frequencies that differ based on country and carrier.  And the use of these frequencies has a tremendous effect on the speed that you might see on your phone, and its coverage.  The general rule of thumb is that a lower frequency has lower speeds, but better (longer range) coverage.  And vice versa for higher frequencies.  With so many frequencies for 5G, they are generally categorized into terms such as 5G low-band (< 2GHz), 5G mid-band (2GHz – 6GHz) and 5G high-band (> 6 GHz).  Image credit: Carritech Telecommunications.

It’s probably easiest to think of it as 1-2-3.  Covering 5G nationwide as Step 1 with low-band frequencies.  Adding faster speeds in Step 2 with mid-bands as cell sites are deployed.  And then even faster speeds in Step 3 with high-bands, as more cell sites are deployed.  In a three-step process, there wouldn’t be any confusion, and users would have the joy of increasing their speeds over time.  The problem is that not every carrier in the world has available frequencies in each of these bands to pull of this strategy. 

Every country owns airwaves for its geography.  It’s similar to a country controlling its airspace for planes flying above land, but in this case, a country owns the invisible radio waves that make wireless work.  In early generations of wireless, it was standardized around the world on a few frequencies.  Now with 5G, countries are busy trying to find frequencies that are still available, or can be pulled back from organizations not using them.  

Not as Easy as 1-2-3 

Not very carrier is in a position to use the 1-2-3 strategy.  It depends on the frequencies that they have available.  In some cases, particularly in Europe and Asia, they might skip to Step 2.  In the US, we’ve seen carriers skip directly to Step 3.  Verizon rolled out 5G in high-bands with incredibly high-speeds, but with limited coverage.  In the US, as an example, T-Mobile initially rolled out 5G in a low-band frequency.  It has great coverage across the US, but speeds are not significantly higher than 4G.   

Different carriers choose different approaches to 5G, which leads to user confusion.  I have 5G, so why is your 5G faster than mine?  More cell sites need to be deployed for high-bands and thus coverage is limited to cities where these sites exist.  

5G: Step-by-Step  

Understanding the challenges of each carrier and their strategies will help to set the right expectations for users.  5G is the future.  It will eventually replace fixed lines with wireless into the home.  But 5G is not overhyped.  It’s just the beginning.  It’s a step-by-step process.  Yet, by the end of this decade, we should expect that a majority of homes are wireless-only in the developed world.  Just in time to begin talking about 6G. 



November 13, 2020

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