Could wireless service completely replace wireline in some scenarios? Perhaps it depends on just how fast internet broadband needs to be, and whether wireless can perform adequately at lower cost than wired or fibre connections.
So how fast is wireless and wired broadband service today?
One easy source is Speedtest, which publishes measured data speeds for both wireless and wireline for many countries worldwide.
Today, it reports Norway, Netherlands and Hungary taking top position for wireless with Singapore, Hong Kong and Iceland winning out for wireless. Wireline speeds are typically 3x faster than wired and are for download rather than uplink. Over 150Mbps speeds by default is quite something, achieved by installing fibre throughout the country.
There can be quite a variation between the two technologies, with countries such as United States ranking much higher for their wired speeds (9th) than wireless (45th). Some surprises include Hungary and Romania in the top 10.
Whether these test results can be considered comprehensive and accurate I’ll leave to the reader.
How fast does broadband need to be?
The vast majority of broadband is consumed by streaming video services at fairly fixed data rates with latency and performance of websites also a factor. Video constitutes up to 70% of total wired network traffic at peak times during the evening.
The question is whether these superfast speeds really make a significant difference. There are many other constraints limiting the performance of a website or App ranging from design architecture (huge image files, large number of interactions, many third party Ads etc.) to infrastructure (web server, network content caching, backhaul bottlenecks). Speeding up the end-to-end data transfer rate will not solve the problem alone.
Streaming video to your TV can range from 500kps to 25Mbps according to the Netflix rough guide below. These rates equate to about 1Gbyte per hour of standard video viewing, 3Gbytes for an hour of HD.
Smartphones are quite happy with less, say 600kbps or 270Mbytes/hour. Lower resolution consumes proportionately lower amounts.
|500 kbps||Lowest speed for video streaming|
|3 Mbps||Standard Definition Video||SD|
|5-8Mpbs||720p and 1080p High Definition||HD|
|25Mbps||4K Ultra High Definition||4K|
So you could argue that it’s only if you plan to independently stream multiple 4K Ultra-HD to your home that you need much more than 15Mbps.
From a personal perspective, I’ve found that the uplink speed was what I noticed most from my latest upgrade. Although I can achieve 50 or 60Mbps downlink, it’s not noticeable outside large file downloads. Not everybody wants to continuously live-stream his or her life to the outside world by video feed. I'm quite happy with standard video streaming but do use HD when available. I am far more concerned about the resilience and consistency of the Wi-Fi connections in different rooms in my home.
In a recent article, I reported that the FCC had decided that 5Mbps was an adequate minimum target for rural broadband service. They have allocated up to $300 million a year to be spent on LTE equipment to provide this to unserved areas. As you can see, this should provide enough for at least one standard video stream with simultaneous web-browsing and email use.
5G for fixed wireless broadband access
Meanwhile, it seems that 5G has been looking for an attractive commercially viable use case, and Fixed Wireless Broadband is the current fad. I understand this would be primarily for more populated areas with greater demand for higher speeds. It would bypass and/or replace the wired connection to homes, delivering much faster data rates without the need to dig up quite so much of the streets.
Many will have spotted that wireless fixed access services already exist and often struggle to compete commercially with wireline providers. They typically win out in areas that are more sparsely populated and are less attractive to the wireline operators.
There are already many wireless technologies specifically designed for fixed wireless access, from WiMAX standard to modern proprietary systems such as CCS's licenced or Mimosa unlicenced solutions. These can already deliver fast peak speeds at relatively low cost. The downside is that many radio nodes are required for coverage and/or capacity.
From what I observe, few WISPs are as profitable as the mainstream network operators – it’s a tough market. Nonetheless, both Verizon and ATT are trialling 5G for this purpose with one analyst report forecasting revenues of $1 billion by 2019 and $40 billion by 2025. I don't yet see strong demand for this approach in other regions.
So why should 5G be commercially better than existing Wireless Fixed Access solutions?
The suggestion is that 5G will allow existing mobile operators to bypass the wireline “last mile” to homes and deliver wireline speeds and services at a comparable or lower cost. The thinking is that because there won’t be any need to dig up the road and connect individual homes, the speed of rollout and cost per connection will be considerably lower.
Furthermore, and unlike the fixed wireless operators of the past, mobile operators will be able to use this 5G network to provide a full mobile service compatible with smartphones. This would be faster and more efficient than 4G.
The conclusion leads to a scenario that in 10 to 15 years time, there won’t be a distinction between mobile and fixed network providers. They’ll all be single service which you can choose to use at home or on the move as you wish.
In this scenario, cable TV companies will fight back, deploying their own 5G wireless networks in place of existing fibre/coax connections.
Is this a certainty?
While 5G Fixed Wireless is definitely being tested and trialled by the major operators, it’s just one of many new technologies under consideration for investment. ATTs John Donovan listed a whole host of new capabilities being evaluated earlier this year, from fibre to the home, to G.fast, 4G Fixed Wireless and MIMO. Despite some optinistic analyst forecasts, it doesn’t appear to me that the company is ready to bet its future on a single new technology at this stage.
Are we close to providing adequate internet speeds for wireline service or is there unsatiable demand for ever faster data rates? Analysis suggests that somewhere around 15Mbps should be adequate for many households, although the marketing hype may encourage us all to buy a much faster service. LTE can outperform that datarate considerably, and we're already seeing that in some of the smaller countries.
Assuming that there remains considerable pent up demand for ever faster speeds, is fixed wireless service the best way to provide that? Fibre continues to be rolled out extensively, G.fast promises further improvements over the existing copper infrastructure, cellular LTE can be used to boost wireline speeds as/when required.
Fixed wireless service is being considered by some of the larger wireless network operators as a primary use case for 5G. The idea is to expand their market by providing both residential and mobile service through the same wireless infrastructure, encroaching on the wireline service providers including Cable TV operators.
This will require very large numbers (hundreds of thousands) of small cells/radio nodes, a clear pricing strategy that may not distinguish between fixed and mobile use, yet providing a good return on investment. The proposition is that unlike existing fixed wireless providers, sharing the same infrastructure for both fixed and mobile services should be more profitable.
Meanwhile, LTE will be used to connect more unserved rural areas (including use of the new CBRS 3.5GHz spectrum in the US), more fibre broadband will be deployed and speeds over legacy copper wiring continue to improve using G.fast.
So I think 5G fixed wireless will have some strong competition and a tough business case to satisfy the financial business case ahead. Simply having a better radio may not be enough to overcome the economics alone.
In short, there’s plenty of life left in LTE and especially LTE small cells, especially over the coming decade.