5G is Here!* Right?

For wireless people, the big excitement in last week’s iPhone launch was the inclusion of mmWave capabilities in all the new phones. We are skeptical about the timeline for mmWave. We lost a lunch bet as the result of last week’s news, but we are still firmly in the skeptical camp.

So what is mmWave? The new 5G standard really comes in two phases. The first is what we have today, largely using existing wireless spectrum, with a few improvements. The second phase, which we call mm Wave, is much more exciting in that it offers much faster data rates. Apple talked about sometimes* reaching 4 Gbps, and users can expect 1 Gbps in regular conditions*. We have seen Twitter comments this week claiming some people are even able to get 9 Gbps. We get it. It will be a lot of fun when we get those data rates, but all those asterixis littering this post are an important tell.

Phones can have all the capabilities in the world, but they mean nothing if there is no network at the other end of the signal. And there is no mmWave network today.

True, Verizon and a handful of other operators, have launched mmWave service, but those networks are only available in a tiny number of cities. More importantly, mmWave signals do not travel like other cellular signals. So even in cities with mmWave networks, the likelihood of the average user being within range of the service are very small.

Set aside all the marketing materials, wireless service is still bound by the laws of physics. In this case, there is a trade-off between data rates (4 Gbps!) and range. A standard cellular base station has a range of 1km, give or take. By contrast, mmWave signals can only travel a few hundred feet. A very rough approximation is a Wi-Fi router. mmWave is a little better than that, but it is the appropriate mental model.

To get a level of coverage that matters to consumers, the operators will need to add more mmWave base stations. A lot more. Rough numbers, the US has about 200,000 cellular base stations today. mmWave will require 2 million, an order of magnitude more. And it remains very unclear where those new base stations will go. The US operators rely heavily on the tower companies for its base stations today. One of those tower companies recently said they have 70,000 ‘small cell sites’, and they are adding 1,000 a quarter. So we have a long way to go.

This matters because consumers will not care until it matters to them. And it will not matter until we get to a much higher level of coverage. We remember in the early days of cell phones when consumer adoption was bound by availability of coverage in large pockets of the US. The same will be true for mmWave.

To make matters worse, the telecom operators are going to have to spend a lot of money to install (or lease) those 2 million sites. This is a huge capex bill, and most operators are in no hurry to spend that. The operators would like to be able to charge a premium for these data rates, but no consumer will be willing to pay up until they have confidence they can actually get those speeds.

So it remains a mystery to us why Apple cares. This is the company whose first phone was a 2G device, and who was a year ‘late’ to the market with 4G. One pressing question for us will be how do the new iPhones deal with the heat of mmWave. Overheating phones is a fairly common problem with new versions of the wireless standards, and our sense is that this is an even bigger problem with mmWave. So there is some risk to Apple that these devices get hot.

Maybe Apple is doing a favor for Verizon. Verizon has a spectrum footprint that makes mmWave much more important. They really want the world to adopt mmWave sooner rather than later. But the other US operators do not feel the same pressure, and this is even more true for operators outside the US, with a few exceptions.

mmWave is coming. It will be great when it arrives, but it is still several years away from being truly commercial.

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