Remember when people cared about the arrival of 5G wireless networks? Well, maybe we should start caring again.
The fuss over 5G wasn’t all hype. The technology crams more data and voice traffic onto the same radio frequencies. And 5G data download speeds can be far faster than previous networks. This makes 5G a powerful tool for many commercial applications. But for the typical consumer, the difference in performance between 4G and 5G phones was negligible.
But now 5G is coming into its own — not as a mobile technology, but as an alternative to cable broadband service for homes and businesses.
It’s called 5G FWA — Fixed Wireless Access. Basically, it’s 5G tailored not for mobile phones but for special wireless receivers that sit on a window sill or mantelpiece. About 6 million US homes and businesses now use 5G FWA. Wireless companies T-Mobile and Verizon are aggressively deploying the service in Greater Boston and throughout the United States. And recently AT&T, which previously scoffed at the concept, began selling its own version called Internet Air in about a dozen US cities, though Boston is not included yet.
For sheer speed, 5G FWA can’t measure up to a good cable or fiber connection. But it provides decent service at a reasonable price.
“They’re not trying to be fiber. They’re not trying to be cable,” said Bruce Leichtman, president and principal analyst of Leichtman Research Group, which tracks the wireless broadband industry. “They’re trying to be good enough for a value segment, and right now it’s working.”
Comcast is charging $35 a month for a service that promises around 400 megabits-per-minute download speed. By contrast, T-Mobile’s service costs $50 per month. But if you combine it with a T-Mobile wireless phone account, the price falls to $30. Verizon is offering a similar deal: $60 a month for FWA, or $35 if you’re also a phone customer.
That’s a decent price, but hardly a massive discount over traditional broadband. So the biggest competitive advantage for 5G FWA is its sheer plug-in-and-turn-on simplicity.
I’ve spent a week using T-Mobile’s 5G FWA system. The router showed up in the mail, about the size, shape, and weight of a five-pound sack of flour. There’s a power cord and a skimpy pamphlet with a QR code. You scan it with your phone to download the T-Mobile app. This includes a cool feature that uses your phone’s camera. Stand in the middle of the room and spin slowly, aiming the camera at the walls and windows. You’ll see a pointer on the screen that tells you the direction to point the front of the router, so it’s aimed at the nearest T-Mobile 5G antenna.
Next, just plug the router in and turn it on. There are two Ethernet ports for plugging in a computer, or you can log in on Wi-Fi, with a user name and password that are written on the back of the router. And that’s that.
I fired up the venerable Ookla Speedtest app, a standard method for measuring broadband performance, and was favorably impressed by my first reading: 223 megabits per second on downloads and 62 megs for uploads. But within hours, as a thunderstorm blasted us with heavy rain, the speed slumped to 134 megabits down and 15 up. The frequencies used by T-Mobile 5G aren’t supposed to be affected by rainstorms, but something had put a thumb on the scale.
It was even worse a couple of days later. The weather was ideal, but broadband performance was dismal: 29 megabits down and 24 up.
What explains these ups and downs? No idea. But there are a fair number of trees between me and that cell tower, and any physical obstruction can dampen a cellular signal. Also, there may have been fluctuations in network traffic. If enough people are soaking up 5G capacity at the same time, performance is bound to suffer.
T-Mobile spokesperson Paisley Madison said the network is supposed to deliver speeds ranging from 72 to 245 megabits per second. That’s a pretty big range, but Madison noted that this is more than sufficient for gaming or video streaming.
“Internet providers are trying to squeeze their customers for more money by trying to convince them they need download speeds of hundreds of megabits, or even a gig, per second for basic home broadband,” Madison said. “But in reality, most homes require far less than that.”
What happened to early promises that 5G could deliver gigabit download speeds? This wasn’t a lie, but neither was it the whole truth.
There’s a screaming-fast version of 5G that uses “millimeter-wave” radio frequencies. I’ve tried that edition and it really is that fast, but only if you’ve got direct line of sight between your device and the cell tower. These extremely high frequencies get soaked up by almost anything in their path. Even a pane of window glass can slow down the signal.
But 5G FWA relies on “mid-band” radio frequencies that are quite fast but nowhere near gigabit speed. The signal easily penetrates windows, walls, or tree limbs, making it a good-enough compromise for millions of users.
How many million? T-Mobile expects up to 8 million subscribers by 2025, about double its current user base. Even if Verizon and AT&T do just as well, it will only amount to a fraction of the US consumer broadband market, now estimated at around 113 million subscribers, according to the Leichtman Research Group.
But at least this handful of users will finally understand what all the 5G fuss was about.