5G: The first three years

The near future of 5G

Who, among telecoms operators, are 5G leaders? Verizon Wireless is certainly among the most enthusiastic proponents.

On October 1, 2018, Verizon turned on the world’s first major 5G network. It is spending US$20 billion to offer 30 million homes millimetre wave 5G, often at speeds around a gigabit. One of the first homes in Houston “clocked speeds of 1.3 gigabits per second at 2,000 feet.”  CEO Vestberg expects to cover the whole country by 2028, some with 3.5 GHz. 5G: The first three years cuts through the hype and confusion to provide the industry a clear picture of the likely future. A companion report, 5G smart strategies, explores how 5G helps carriers make more money and defeat the competition.

This report was written by Dave Burstein with substantial help from Andrew Collinson and Dean Bubley.

What is 5G?

In one sense, 5G is just a name for all the new technologies now being widely deployed. It’s just better mobile broadband. It will not change the world anytime soon.

There are two very different flavours of 5G:

  • Millimetre wave: offers about 3X the capacity of mid-band or the best 4G. Spectrum used is from 20 GHz to over 60 GHz. Verizon’s mmWave system is designed to deliver 1 gigabit downloads to most customers and 5 gigabits shared. 26 GHz in Europe & 28 GHz in the U.S. are by far the most common.
  • Low and mid-band: uses 4G hardware and “New Radio” software. It is 60-80% less capable on average than millimetre wave and very similar in performance to 4G TD-LTE. 3.3 GHz – 4.2 GHz is by far the most important band.

To begin, a few examples.

5G leaders are deploying millimetre wave

Verizon’s is arguably currently the most advanced 5G network in the world. Perhaps most surprisingly, the “smart build” is keeping costs so low capital spending is coming down. Verizon’s trials found millimetre wave performance much better than expected. In some cases, 5G capacity allowed reducing the number of cells.

Verizon will sell fixed wireless outside its incumbent territory. It has ~80 million customers out of district. Goldman Sachs estimates it will add 8 million fixed wireless by 2023 and more than pay for the buildout.

Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg says he believes mmWave capacity will allow very attractive offerings that will win customers away from the competition.

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What are the other 5G leaders doing?

Telefónica Deutschland has similar plans, hoping to blow open the German market with mmWave to a quarter of the country. Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone are sticking with the much slower mid-band 5G and could be clobbered.

Most 5G will be slower low and mid-band formerly called 4G

80% or more of 5G worldwide the next three years will not be high-speed mmWave. Industry group 3GPP decided early in 2018 to call anything running New Radio software “5G.” In practice, almost any currently shipping 4G radio can add on the software and be called “5G.” The software was initially said to raise capacity between 10% and 52%. That’s 60% to 80% slower than mmWave. However, improved 4G technology has probably cut the difference by more than half. That’s 60% to 80% slower than mmWave. It’s been called “faux 5G” and “5G minus,” but few make the distinction. T-Mobile USA promises 5G to the entire country by 2020 without a large investment. Neville Ray is blanketing the country with 4G in 20 MHz of the new 600 MHz band. That doesn’t require many more towers due to the long reach of low frequencies. T-Mobile will add NR software for a marketing push.

In an FCC presentation, Ray said standalone T-Mobile will have a very wide 5G coverage but at relatively low speeds. Over 85% of users will connect at less than 100 megabits. The median “5G” connection will be 40-70 megabits. Some users will only get 10-20 megabits, compared to a T-Mobile average today of over 30 megabits. Aggregating 600 MHz NR with other T-Mobile bands now running LTE would be much faster but has not been demonstrated.

While attesting to the benefits of the T-Mobile-Sprint deal, Neville claimed that using Sprint spectrum at 2500 MHz and 11,000 Sprint towers will make a far more robust offering by 2024. 10% of this would be mmWave.

In the final section of this report, I discuss 5G smart strategy: “5G” is a magic marketing term. It will probably sell well even if 4G speeds are similar. The improved sales can justify a higher budget.

T-Mobile Germany promises nationwide 5G by 2025. That will be 3.5 GHz mid-band, probably using 100 MHz of spectrum. Germany has just set aside 400 MHz of spectrum at 3.5 GHz. DT, using 100 MHz of 3.5 GHz, will deliver 100–400 megabit downloads to most.

100–400 megabits is faster than much of T-Mobile’s DSL. It soon will add fixed mobile in some rural areas. In addition, T-Mobile is selling a combined wireless and DSL router. The router uses the DSL line preferably but can also draw on the wireless when the user requires more speed.

China has virtually defined itself as a 5G leader by way of its government’s clear intent for the operators. China Mobile plans two million base stations running 2.5 GHz, which has much better reach than radio in the 3.5 GHz spectrum. In addition, the Chinese telcos have been told to build a remarkable edge network. Minister Miao Wei wants “90% of China within 25 ms of a server.” That’s extremely ambitious but the Chinese have delivered miracles before. 344 million Chinese have fibre to the home, most built in four years.

Telus, Canada’s second incumbent, in 2016 carefully studied the coming 5G choices. The decision was to focus capital spending on more fibre in the interim. 2016 was too early to make 5G plans, but a strong fibre network would be crucial. Verizon also invested heavily in fibre in 2016 and 2017, which now is speeding 5G to market. Like Verizon, Telus sees the fibre paying off in many ways. It is doing fibre to the home, wireless backhaul, and service to major corporations. CEO Darren Entwistle in November 2018 spoke at length about its future 5G, including the importance of its large fibre build, although he hasn’t announced anything yet.

There is a general principle that if it’s too early to invest in 5G, it’s a good idea to build as much fibre as you can in the interim.

Benefits of 5G technology

  • More broadband capacity and speed. Most of the improvement in capacity comes from accessing more bandwidth through carrier aggregation, and many antenna MIMO. Massive MIMO has shipped as part of 4G since 2016 and carrier aggregation goes back to 2013. All 5G phones work on 4G as well, connecting as 4G where there is no 5G signal.
  • Millimetre wave roughly triples capacity. Low and mid-band 5G runs on the same hardware as 4G. The only difference to 4G is NR software, which adds only modestly to capacity.
  • Drastically lower cost per bit. Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam said, “5G will deliver a megabit of service for about 1/10th of what 4G does.”
  • Reduced latency. 1 ms systems will mostly only be in the labs for several more years, but Verizon’s and other systems deliver speed from the receiver to the cell of about 10 milliseconds. For practical purposes, latency should be considered 15 ms to 50 ms and more, unless and until large “edge Servers” are installed. Only China is likely to do that in the first three years.

The following will have a modest effect, at most, in the next three years: Autonomous cars, remote surgery, AR/VR, drones, IoT, and just about all the great things promised beyond faster and cheaper broadband. Some are bogus, others not likely to develop in our period. 5G leaders will need to capitalise on near-term benefits.

Contents:

  • Executive Summary
  • Some basic timelines
  • What will 5G deliver?
  • What will 5G be used for?
  • Current plans reviewed in the report
  • Introduction
  • What is 5G?
  • The leaders are deploying millimetre wave
  • Key dates
  • What 5G and advanced 4G deliver
  • Six things to know
  • Six myths
  • 5G “Smart Build” brings cost down to little more than 4G
  • 5G, Edge, Cable and IoT
  • Edge networks in 5G
  • “Cable is going to be humongous” – at least in the U.S.
  • IoT and 5G
  • IoT and 5G: Does anyone need millions of connections?
  • Current plans of selected carriers (5G leaders)
  • Who’s who
  • Phone makers
  • The system vendors
  • Chip makers
  • Spectrum bands in the 5G era
  • Millimetre wave
  • A preview of 5G smart strategies
  • How can carriers use 5G to make more money?
  • The cold equations of growth

Figures:

  • Figure 1: 20 years of NTT DOCOMO capex
  • Figure 2: Verizon 5G network plans
  • Figure 3: Qualcomm’s baseband chip and radio frequency module
  • Figure 4: Intel 5G chip – Very limited 5G production capability until late 2019
  • Figure 5: Overview of 5G spectrum bands
  • Figure 6: 5G experience overview
  • Figure 7: Cisco VNI forecast of wireless traffic growth between 2021–2022

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5G: Why Verizon thinks differently – and what to do about it

Introduction

Verizon’s path

Verizon is deploying 5G as quickly as it practically can, already planning to have over 1,000 base stations by the end of 2018. CEO Lowell McAdam told investors he wants to quickly reach 30 million homes, while Goldman Sachs estimated Verizon planned to spend US$20 billion for this initial phase to 2021/22 – although there is no publicised schedule. Verizon’s investments include the acquisition of XO Communications for US$1.8 billion, which has fibre in 45 of the 50 largest cities, which Verizon sees as vital infrastructure for its 5G build.

The base stations will support mobile 5G as soon as the handsets are ready. Leading mobile chip vendor Qualcomm expects a limited number of mobile phone chips to be available by the end of 2018. Sufficient chips for phones in volume are expected by mid-year 2019.[1] Taiwan’s MediaTek, the number two 4G chipmaker, says it will “hit the 5G chip market with a bang in 2019”.[2]

Verizon is building a state-of-the-art network in 800MHz of spectrum at 28GHz using existing towers and new small cells, delivering a peak speed of 10 gigabits per second or lower. A consumer in a good location should get a true gigabit in both directions, with mobile network latency of between 5 ms and 20 ms.[3]

This will probably be the largest fast 5G network built before the next decade. The Chinese operators will mostly be using frequencies below 6GHz, which will be 65% to 85% slower.

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Verizon’s large fixed opportunity

In two-thirds of the US, Verizon sells wireless but is not the incumbent wireline carrier. With limited unbundling at present, it cannot offer a landline (or equivalent) service to over 70 million of its wireless customers. It therefore cannot offer quadruple play for higher revenue, lower churn and better margins.

Yet in half the US, there is only one choice for decent broadband: the cable company. Over half of US cable has been upgraded to gigabit download speeds, and over three-quarters of the country will be offered gigabit cable by the end of 2019.[4] Faster speeds contributed to the 2.7 million broadband subscriptions cable added in 2017.

Figure 1: Cable is dominating US broadband

Cable dominates US broadband

Source: Leichtman Research based on company filings

In many places, the telephone companies have not upgraded decade-old DSL lines and are not competitive with their cable counterparts.  In 2017, US telephone companies lost 625,000 broadband subscriptions.

McAdam expects to quickly win 10– 20% of the new market Verizon can address. Dean Bubley notes it is very difficult to persuade reasonably happy customers to switch, but cable service in the US is notoriously bad. Verizon’s long-term goal is 40– 50%, consistent with its results where it has FIOS fibre to the home. CFO Matt Ellis believes, “When you look at other cities outside of the ILEC footprint, offering consumer services using 5G is, we think, going to have a lot of upside for the company.”[5]

Contents:

  • Executive summary
  • The contentions of Verizon and other proponents
  • Doubts about proponents’ claims
  • Crucial questions to resolve
  • Introduction
  • Verizon’s path
  • Verizon’s large fixed opportunity
  • Verizon’s cost estimates
  • What carriers should consider based on Verizon’s choice
  • Two crucial questions for predicting when you will need mmWave
  • Will there be a large first-mover advantage?
  • AT&T is divided on 5G
  • Two carriers’ planning for uncertainty
  • Preparing for 5G: contingency scenarios
  • 5G: Vendor insight
  • Risks to this analysis
  • Technology appendix
  • Advances in 4G LTE and mid-band 5G also deliver enormous capacity

Figures:

  • Figure 1: Cable is dominating US broadband
  • Figure 2: NTT DOCOMO capex by generation and traffic demand
  • Figure 3: Verizon finds 5G requires fewer cells than 4G in some locations
  • Figure 4: Samsung test data comparing LTE 1.8GHz versus 5G GHz
  • Figure 5: Wireless traffic growth to 2021
  • Figure 6: Samsung indoor and outdoor mmWave CPE

[1] http://bit.ly/2JR2bVK

[2] http://bit.ly/2la0q8c

[3] End-to-end latency for a user will depend on how far their data request needs to go into the network and the Internet. If the signal has to go from one side of the US to the other it will take longer than a locally or edge hosted service.

[4]  https://www.fastnet.news/index.php/cable/641-gigabit-broadband-downstream-available-to-50m-u-s-homes

[5] https://www.verizon.com/about/investors/jp-morgan-global-technology-media-and-communications-conference-2018

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