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5G vs. cable: Hitting the millimeter-wave wall

Broadband Success Partners' Jack Burton argues that 5G is not the competitive threat to cable that many once thought it would be.

Jack S. Burton

September 14, 2020

3 Min Read
5G vs. cable: Hitting the millimeter-wave wall

In 2018, there was a real concern that 5G would be a very big threat to the cable broadband pipe. That concern seems to have waned a bit. Verizon clearly filled in a lot of fiber. They have a lot of millimeter-wave spectrum. Will 5G ever become a threat to that cable broadband pipe?

Well, my main takeaway about 5G is that it is really nothing more than 4G if you don't look at millimeter wave. If you take millimeter wave off the table, you've got very conventional competition from cellular, as it's always been. It's a little bit faster, true, but otherwise, it's really no different, and a next-generation coax connection or a fiber connection to a home is just a world of difference in terms of what you can get out of it. The CableLabs 10G initiative makes sure that cable connections will be ready to compete with fiber-to-the-home for many years in the future. Can 5G similarly compete?

Putting millimeter-wave back into the picture, you have a transmission medium capable of multi-gigabit-speed connections. The problem, however, is that the medium only works with true line-of-sight. This is a big challenge, and the fact that today’s mobile 5G networks can hardly ever leverage the millimeter wave capabilities is 5G’s dirty little secret. Yes, there are 5G millimeter-wave networks in select cities; however, most users will not go looking for the available microcells on the street the way that those testing 5G for carriers and industry publications might.

What are millimeter wave’s problems? Number one is it doesn't go through anything. It will not penetrate a wall. It barely penetrates a window. It won't penetrate any foliage. Transmission capability, even with short distances, is very limited by this, and I think that the companies that have started playing with 5G, particularly Verizon, have discovered that is the case. AT&T has too.

In fact, millimeter wave is really good only for clear line-of-sight outdoor use. So you could use it as a wireless drop to replace fiber to a home, say, or wireless extension to cross a street or a river. Starry has had some success using millimeter wave as a wireless connection to apartment buildings, but even they don’t try to use it indoors.

In terms of a widespread technology to compete with cable, you're going to have to put in so many hub sites and so many cells to make millimeter wave work that I think the cost just starts to go up to the point where you might as well build a fiber-to-the-home network or very close to it. That's why I don't think it's a primary competitor.

Another way to look at it is that if anyone seriously tried to install enough sites to make millimeter wave a competitive access technology, they would require so much backhaul that the incumbent cable or fiber operator could realize a lot of wholesale business potential serving them.

Wireless technology is very important for serving devices outside and inside the home. But, as an access medium, 5G millimeter-wave just can’t break through the wall.

— Jack Burton, Principal, Broadband Success Partners

About the Author(s)

Jack S. Burton

Principal, Broadband Success Partners

Jack is a principal of Broadband Success Partners, a consultancy focused on the technology, operations, marketing and finance needs of service providers, suppliers and telecom investors. Clients include Ciena, Corning, Fujitsu, Grain Management, and Infinera.  Prior to co-founding the group, Jack was Senior Director of Systems Engineering for Altice USA and Cablevision Systems.  Projects included Voice Over IP, Business Services, Advanced Access Networks and Optical Transport. Jack served as Chairman of the Cablelabs Packet Cable Certification Board from 2011 to 2017, and has written for Broadband Library magazine, LightReading, and other publications. With prior posts at Lightpath, MTV Networks, Tribune/United, and Warner/Amex, he has over 35 years of industry experience.

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