Editor’s Corner—So Verizon’s launching ‘5G’ in Sacramento? Big deal

Monica Alleven editor's corner

DALLAS—Verizon made headlines yesterday with the news that it will launch 5G residential broadband services in up to five markets in 2018, starting with Sacramento, California. I say: ho hum.

First all, fixed wireless is maybe the most boring of the “5G” services we as an industry are discussing. The operator named only one market, and it’s not going to launch until the second half of 2018. Details of that launch, and the announcement of additional markets, “will be provided at a later date,” Verizon said.

The better—or more complete—story, from my perspective, is what Verizon’s Nicola Palmer said during the opening morning keynote here at the FierceWireless Next-Gen Wireless Networks Summit. At that time, Verizon’s chief network officer didn’t yet reveal Sacramento as the first market, only to say that Verizon is on track to launch a 5G broadband offering in 2018 in several cities.

But she delved into some of the background that’s been going on in this space. Over the last few months, there’s been a lot of noise around 5G.

“Everyone claims to have it, or be on the verge of deploying it,” or insisting that “the spectrum assets that they have in their arsenal happen to be perfectly suited for 5G technology,” she said. Zing.

That latter comment could be referring to T-Mobile, which happened to have the “perfect” 5G spectrum plan after acquiring a boatload of 600 MHz spectrum in the incentive auction. But Sprint also has positioned its 2.5 GHz spectrum as ideal for everything leading up to and including 5G, so there’s that. And of course, rival AT&T has been touting its “5G Evolution” markets.

Some would claim 5G is just a bundling of current or emerging technologies to improve network services that are already being delivered, Palmer said. She also mentioned “5G Evolution,” noting that the reality is those advances are really 4G LTE technologies, which are important—Advanced LTE is providing big advances in speed and capacity—but it’s 4G nonetheless. Every operator is making big claims about these LTE Advanced capabilities.

Conversely, 5G is about the combination of gigabit/massive bandwidth, single-digit latency and scalability. It’s also about a leap of faith, and “our goal is to meet and exceed the amazing potential,” she said.

Back when Palmer joined Bell Atlantic in 1990, at a time when the pay phone industry was dying, it was difficult to foresee exactly how wireless would completely transform how people live and work. Yet 2G, 3G and 4G LTE would eventually change people’s lives very dramatically.

Now we’re looking at 5G, which is, beyond the initial use cases, going to touch nearly every industry sector. It will support autonomous cars, drones, telemedicine, immersive education and all kinds of cool stuff.

While that’s all great, in the nearer term, when we're talking about fixed wireless, I think Verizon and other carriers need to be ready for disruptors like Starry that are trying to compete in this space. If they succeed, they could upend the market, offering much more affordable services.

But I also happen to think that Verizon needs to have something really awesome up its sleeve in order to make a meaningful impact in the mindset and market share in this space. Of course, they can’t tip their hands too much, but one can hope, at least for the sake of competition.

(Separately but related, Verizon executives just wrapped up an analyst day where they talked about 5G and the addressable market. New Street analyst Jonathan Chaplin said in a note to investors yesterday that bottom line, until they admit to the capex and opex costs associated with a serious fixed wireless 5G deployment, the market should be skeptical. He reminds us that Google Fiber was here once upon a time, “and much more was known about the cost of deployment and the capabilities of the network...and it still died. It looks like we won’t know how committed Verizon is to this or how much of a threat it will be until this time next year. Until then we remain skeptical.”)

Meanwhile, once again, it looks like the industry is going down a path where the “Gs” are getting chopped into sections, like “3.5G” or “4.9G.” Same thing with 5G; there are incremental ways that it will get deployed. No one is going to flip a switch and say, “Oh, yeah, we’ve got ‘5G.’”

RELATED: AT&T defends use of ‘5G Evolution’ branding for LTE service, promises theoretical speeds up to 1 Gbps this year

Yes, as in previous generations, you can line up your marketing claims with the standards, but even the standards are incredibly confusing for those of us nonengineers who are not attending 3GPP meetings. Maybe it does make sense to say: 5.1, or 5.3 and so on. It might be more specific and accurate.

All of which is to say there’s a lot more to 5G than fixed wireless, and it’s best to keep in mind that 5G is an evolution, not something we suddenly reach at the flip of a switch. Unless, of course, there's an autonomous car running on a street fully equipped with cellular Vehicular-to-Everything (C-V2X) tied to the public infrastructure and it's up and running in a commercial environment, all across the country. That will definitely be “5G 5.0.” – Monica | @fiercewrlsstech