Top mobile execs let air out of the 5G balloon, which will “never reach rural America”

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Deflating balloon

It’s one thing to promise the moon to customers and city councils, but quite another to mislead Wall Street. Creating outrageous expectations there can land you in jail. Which, presumably, is why two top executives from Verizon and T-Mobile are walking back expectations of a universal 5G wonderland.

According to a story by Sean Hollister in The Verge, it’s about the new frequency bands that mobile companies plan to use for high speed, low latency 5G service. Those bands are way up the spectrum chart, in the millimeter wave range, where data capacity is high but range and penetrating power is low. So to make it work, mobile carriers need to build a lot of small cell sites. Which is expensive and only pencils out where revenue potential is equally high…

“We all need to remind ourselves this is not a coverage spectrum,” Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg told analysts on the company’s Q1 2019 earnings call on Tuesday — just one day after T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray decried Verizon’s 5G rollout as one that would “never reach rural America.”

“Millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum has great potential in terms of speed and capacity, but it doesn’t travel far from the cell site and doesn’t penetrate materials at all. It will never materially scale beyond small pockets of 5G hotspots in dense urban environments,” Ray wrote.

5G technology can be used on any frequency band, and over time – decades, likely – it’ll replace 4G and older equipment. And there are plans to use it on a few lower frequencies with less data capacity and greater reach in the near term. But without network densification – lots of short range small cell sites – 5G will just be a tech upgrade, and not a quantum leap into a hyper connected world.

It’s a tech upgrade that will bring significant benefits, as did upgrades from 2G to 3G, and 3G to 4G, but it will take a long time for rural and suburban California to notice the difference.