5G won’t be much different from 4G outside dense urban areas, a Verizon executive said yesterday.
The massive hype around 5G has focused on speed improvements expected on millimeter-wave spectrum, which wasn’t previously used on mobile broadband networks. 5G on lower-spectrum bands will be like “good 4G,” Verizon Consumer Group CEO Ronan Dunne said at Oppenheimer’s annual Technology, Internet & Communications Conference (webcast link).
” While we can deploy and we will deploy a 5G nationwide offering, the lower down the spectrum tiers you go, the more that will approximate to a good 4G service,” Dunne said. “The truth is, we have a very good 4G LTE service in parts of the US where our competitors don’t. If someone else is rushing to bring out 5G nationwide, it may be because they don’t have credible 4G LTE coverage in those areas to start with.”
Dunne’s comments seem at least partly aimed at T-Mobile, which has been claiming Verizon doesn’t have a real 5G strategy outside the millimeter-wave bands. T-Mobile will get no shortage of mid-band spectrum if it’s able to complete the acquisition of Sprint, which has plenty of 2.5 GHz spectrum. T-Mobile CEO John Legere argues that this mid-band spectrum will be a crucial complement to millimeter waves and the low-band spectrum used by current 4G networks.
Self-serving, but probably accurate
Low-band generally refers to spectrum below 1GHz. Millimeter waves are technically 30GHz and above, but carriers have also been using the millimeter-wave moniker for spectrum above 20GHz.
Each carrier obviously wants to make its own spectrum seem better than its competitors’ holdings. Verizon is strong in low-band and millimeter-wave spectrum, but it has less in the mid-band range, and that affects how its executives discuss the prospect of 5G on the different spectrum bands.
Verizon’s comments square with basic science. Mobile networks can produce higher speeds in millimeter-wave bands because there’s more spectrum available in that part of the frequency range. Millimeter waves don’t travel as far as low- and mid-band waves and are easily blocked by walls and other obstacles, making them unsuitable for widespread coverage. T-Mobile and Verizon both previously confirmed that millimeter-wave networks will primarily be for dense urban environments, which means the biggest speed gains of 5G won’t come to rural areas.
Even if T-Mobile is right about mid-band spectrum providing a huge boost over the lowest mobile frequencies, Verizon’s comments would still apply to Verizon’s network. That means, outside the most densely populated areas, Verizon 5G will be hard to distinguish from 4G.
The expected reality of 5G in rural and suburban areas stands in stark contrast to the hype stoked by carriers and Republican government officials who are seeking more industry deregulation. The Federal Communications Commission preempted local regulation and fees related to small cells last year, claiming that 5G is so “transformative” that cities and towns shouldn’t be allowed to decide how much to charge carriers for access to public rights-of-way or to impose certain kinds of aesthetic requirements on network deployments. The 5G hype has been helped along by media outlets breathlessly repeating claims that 5G will fundamentally change everything from health care to education.
More spectrum, more speed
As Dunne noted yesterday, the amount of spectrum in each band will play a huge role in determining the speeds available over 5G. The more spectrum you have, “the more of the features and capabilities of 5G that you can enable,” Dunne said yesterday.
We want to have both a coverage strategy and a capability strategy, and a very large majority of the volume of data that we carry on our networks goes to large, dense urban environments. From a population point of view, [big cities have] significantly less than half of customers, but from a data traffic point of view, it’s significantly more than half. When it comes to the ability to use 5G as a significant capacity enhancement, there’s more of an opportunity to leverage that in urban areas.
Verizon will “have millimeter-wave in the majority of places where data is used,” Dunne said, though he was apparently just referring to big urban areas.
With early 5G deployments, “millimeter wave is giving you between 1 and 2Gbps download speeds,” Dunne continued. “The mid-bands and lowers are giving you in the low hundreds, so it’s already very clear the distinction between the two.”
Those speeds are coming on a network without many customers, so average bandwidth available to each customer will decrease as more devices connect to 5G. Even when the network is loaded with customers, there will be far more bandwidth available to each person on millimeter-wave networks than on low- and mid-band ones, Dunne said. While Verizon has about 1,000 MHz worth of millimeter-wave spectrum, Dunne said that “most people are going to be on maybe 40 or up to 100MHz of a mid-band [network] That’s really important.”
Verizon recently announced a 5G hotspot that it’s selling for $650, plus $85 or more a month for unlimited data. Verizon is also selling 5G-enabled phones from LG, Samsung, and Motorola. In general, Verizon is charging $10 more per month for 5G than 4G, despite only having 5G in parts of nine cities.
Verizon’s offerings have gotten more confusing, with five different unlimited plans, each with different limits. Verizon doesn’t seem likely to simplify its offerings with 5G, as Dunne said that Verizon may offer a range of 5G plans targeted toward different types of customers.
Over the next 18 to 24 months, Verizon will deliver “distinct 5G experiences” with different features and prices, he said. “I can envisage a gamers’ plan, I can envisage a day traders’ plan, someone who wants to leverage ultra-low latency, certainty of access,” Dunne said.