Would 5G make a community network unnecessary?

Note: This post has been updated January 27, 2019 to correct some information.

We’ve gotten some feedback that emerging 5G wireless technology would make a community network unnecessary. Is this true?

Currently, Comcast/Xfinity has a virtual lock on high-speed Internet in Northampton. It offers Internet to the home over its cable network, as well as wireless connectivity in certain areas of Northampton.

In theory, any local cellular network provider is a competitor, but in practice they are not because they cannot deliver the bandwidth and speed offered by a cable network. They are pumping the Internet out over relatively slow 2G/3G/4G wireless technologies. This is why, if you have a choice, you use a local WiFi network instead.

5G technology may change this, as well as introduce real competition for Comcast. 5G is a next-generation wireless technology (the previous generation was 4G) which offers much faster speed over wireless networks, comparable to what you can get via a cable network. In theory, 5G will introduce choice that can lead to lower prices as companies compete.

A couple of things to realize about 5G:

  • It’s an emerging technology. Right now, it’s only available in a few communities in the United States. Cellular companies are trying to figure out how to deploy the technology most effectively. It’s years, at best, from widespread adoption.
  • Mobile devices will need to work with 5G, so you will have to replace your smartphone to use it. To use it from home, you will need a special router.
  • Most likely Northampton will be on the trailing edge of 5G technology. 5G providers will concentrate on the most profitable markets first, which will probably be dense, urban markets.

We spent some time researching 5G, mostly reading this article. It’s a big topic and it’s likely we have a few facts wrong. So consider this analysis preliminary.

  • Based on our reading, the highest effective speed available over a 5G network is about 100mbs (megabits per second) download and 50mbs upload per connection. This is something of an ideal speed, and it only would work with certain cellular providers that have access to the frequencies needed, and only within a reasonably close range. There are other frequencies that could be used but they would provide less bandwidth but sometimes can do so at a greater range. Some of these are affected by structures between you and the transmitter. The standard for fiber optic networks like we are advocating is 1gbs (gigabits per second). So a community network should provide greater bandwidth. We’ll grant you that if you are paying Comcast $49.95/month for 15mbs service, 5G will be a huge increase in bandwidth. For mobile devices, you will effectively have bandwidth similar to home.
  • There are range limitations. The technology works, but it’s not like you can have a transceiver (transmitter/receiver) and everyone within 20 miles of it can connect to it. So it’s likely such a network could not adequately cover all of Northampton.
  • Since it uses the cellular network, ultimately transceivers are hooked into fiber optic cables. So fiber has to be strung to wherever the transceivers are located if they it is not there already. So these transceivers will likely appear on existing telephone poles and from existing cellphone towers. To reach other areas, new cable will have to be laid, polls installed and transceivers placed.

The following is speculation on our part but we think are reasonable inferences:

  • All wireless technology uses shared bandwidth. So it’s unlikely that if you have a potential 100mbs connection that you will actually get 100mbs, because you are sharing that portion of the spectrum with others. Fiber optic networks can better ensure that you get a dedicated amount of bandwidth.
  • We are skeptical that 5G technology will be affordable. Since it offers new capabilities, particularly for mobile devices, it’s likely to be pricey. So it’s unlikely to bring down the costs of high-speed Internet, but will give mobile users a better and faster experience, probably for a premium.

In short, we don’t think it is an acceptable substitute for a community network, which should offer much more value to consumers, in part by keeping costs low because it’s likely to be a city-sponsored, not-for-profit network. In addition, local businesses generally will need fiber to get the quality of service and dedicated bandwidth they need.

It certainly is possible that a community network could offer 5G services too, for which you might pay an extra fee. Downtown Northampton certainly could use a robust wireless network. By the time a community network is deployed, it is likely 5G could be made available in these areas.

As the linked article states:

  • Peak data rate: 5G will offer significantly faster data speeds. Peak data rates can hit 20Gbps downlink and 10Gbps uplink per mobile base station. Mind you, that’s not the speed you’d experience with 5G (unless you have a dedicated connection), its the speed shared by all users on the cell.
  • Real-world speeds: While the peak data rates for 5G sound pretty impressive, actual speeds won’t be the same. The spec calls for user download speeds of 100Mbps and upload speeds of 50Mbps.

 

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