5G, the elusive fifth generation mobile interconnectivity solution that promises reduced latency, faster device connectivity, and higher data rates, may bring new life to high-frequency wavelengths previously thought to be useless for wireless service. Based on a NewtonX survey deployed to previous executives and directors at AT&T, Verizon, and other mobile carriers, millimeter wave spectrums, once considered useless radio wave licenses, are now valuable property due to technological advances and 5G offerings.
Waves Don’t Die: What Millimeter Waves Are And Why Everyone Wants Them
Millimeter waves are extremely high frequency wavelengths (imagine tall waves with peaks close together, as opposed to low waves with the peaks spaced out) that can carry more internet traffic than other types of wavelength. They are called millimeter wavelengths because the waves are so close together that they can be measured in millimeters. Until recently, these wavelengths were considered useless because they can be blocked by concrete, trees, cars, and other obstacles.
Now, however, mobile service providers are considering millimeter spectrums because, even though they don’t go very far, they do allow for extremely fast downloads, and can be implemented in urban pockets with high demand for broadband. In these areas, millimeter spectrum can strengthen existing capacity and improve speed by 10-40x for customers.
Who’s Bidding: What Each of the Mobile Giants is Playing For in the Millimeter Spectrum Game
Currently Verizon holds by far the most millimeter real-estate, due in large part to its high profile acquisition of Straight Path Communications Inc. for $3.1B. AT&T follows with about a third of the number of licenses, and T-mobile trails with a tenth of the licenses held by Verizon. Dish also has a handful of licenses, but not nearly enough to compete with the other mobile giants.
Each company is angling for a different use for their millimeter wavelength real estate. Verizon currently uses its millimeter broadband to offer home broadband service (the company is testing it in four cities), and says it beams internet connections straight through customers’ windows in order to avoid the expense of a technician visit. AT&T, on the other hand, is using its millimeter wavelength territory to offer reliable alternatives to Wi-Fi in offices and large buildings.
A recent FCC auction of some of the remaining millimeter wavelength that isn’t owned by Verizon, however, yielded lackluster results: initial bids totaled just $42M, and 1/3 of licenses received no opening bid at all. This lack of interest could be due to the fact that Verizon already owns over half of the available millimeter spectrum, and most of the available 28 GHz band available. It’s likely that many companies are waiting to bid for high value 24 GHz licenses — a bandwidth that is still considered very high wavelength, and much higher wavelength than most used to power mobile phones today.
Some companies don’t want to wait on telecom giants, though. Audi, for instance, installed its own private 5G network with infrastructure from Ericsson. 5G is expected to popularize private networks, particularly in factories and warehouses, since it can be programmed to treat different types of equipment differently, and keep mission-critical devices running even during network disruptions.
Will Millimeter Waves Make or Break the Top Players in 5G?
In order to enable truly functional use of millimeter wavelengths, there needs to be infrastructure on the ground every few blocks or so, since the waves cannot travel very far. For some players, such as Comcast, this barrier to entry was a dealbreaker for using millimeter wavelengths as a point of entry to 5G. China’s Huawei, the world’s leader in 5G, has already built and manufactured the hardware needed for on-the-ground operation of 5G. However, it has been blocked from rolling out this infrastructure in numerous countries including the U.S. over fears that the country would use its materials to spy on citizens of other countries.
Regardless of which U.S. company wins the race to 5G, China will account for more than half of all 5G users by 2022. This will enable the country to rapidly roll out IoT infrastructure, and the U.S. is sure to follow suit as rapidly as possible.