The Real Bandwidth Revolution
Posted March 26, 2021
In prophecies and presentations, I have suggested trillion-dollar markets for future broadband breakthroughs from the internet of things (IoT) to the blockchain.
In the face of COVID lockdowns, however, the Federal Reserve may be able to print money in tera dollar streams but it cannot print terahertz of bandwidth.
That depends on ingenious engineers extending the realms of sand, glass, and air. Right now they seem to be running out of suitable sand for chips.
Presented as a settled path to the bandwidth future, 5G in fact offers a mixed bag of old and new ideas and technologies in the realms of air. Low end 5G below and around 6 gigahertz are merely an upgrade of existing mobile networks. Exotic or high-end 5G is a leap ahead into so-called millimeter wave frequencies between 20 gigahertz and 300 gigahertz.
Millimeter waves afford huge increases in hypothetical bandwidth and reductions in delay or latency, at the cost of millions of antennas with 100-meter ranges.
Although all telcos bask in 5G projections of multi-hundredfold expansion of the number of connected devices and potential bandwidth, in fact, most existing 5G deployments shun millimeter waves and offer only incremental gains. Using millimeter waves are only a few experiments — such as in Narita Airport in Tokyo, and at the Winter Olympics in China, and rare urban redoubts of Verizon.
A Google study for the Defense Innovation Board limns out the 5G challenge. To deliver just 100 megabits per second of data to 72% of the US population using high-end 5G requires some 13 million transceivers on millions of new antennas and some $400 billions of investment.
Purchased at Federal Communications Commission auctions, with exclusive control enforced by government, the prevailing spectrum bands are the domains of operators such as Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile. They have nothing to do with millimeter waves. Verizon paid $52 billion for its new realms around 2-3 gigahertz and ATT paid $27.4 billion. Your monthly bill must defray those costs.
Complementing the service from the telcos — and their 3GPP — are the Society of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) and their 802.11 committees and Wi-Fi Alliance.
The Truth About Wi-Fi
Most wireless internet traffic comes not through telco networks but through the unlicensed bands of Wi-Fi, which pay nothing to the FCC. Your laptop and tablet have only Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radio connections and your smartphone defaults to Wi-Fi around 80% of the time.
Wi-Fi supplies nearly all the indoor and office links on which most of us rely. Bluetooth provides low power wireless for IoT portable gear such as keyboards, mice, earphones, watches, and wearables.
Wi-Fi currently offers little mobility or vehicular service outside of airplanes and trains. Unlike 3GPP, the Wi-Fi Alliance has no exclusive spectrum. It must police its unlicensed domains itself and provide reliable shared spectrum services at sufficiently low cost to compete with the telco offerings.
Under the aegis of WiFi6 and 6E, awarded a doubling of unlicensed spectrum by the FCC under Agit Pai, the Wi-Fi Alliance is pioneering a range of new technologies. Included is a new mesh architecture for more complete indoor coverage in malls and airports, a 5G target.
Also emerging are new Open RAN (radio access network) standards that circumvent much of the 5G politics and enable use of licensed and unlicensed bands as opportune in factories and malls and on campuses.
Increasingly providing household and office Wi-Fi are new routers and access points. For wider links, Wi-Fi increasingly depends on the expansion of fiber optic broadband chiefly by cable companies.
Under current turbulent economic conditions, Wi-Fi can expand incrementally, without vast investment. Household by household, mall by mall, campus by campus, stadium by Starbucks, Wi-Fi will evoke all the creativity and surprises.
By contrast, 5G will roll out slowly, as the telcos continue their infatuation with content plays. Going Hollywood is more fun than getting stung by high energy, high cost millimeter waves.
Meanwhile, for a Prophecy, the real bandwidth revolution remains in glass and air.
Harvard profs awed by 5G and its bandwidth and latency advances should recall that fiber-optics offers not millimeter but nanometer waves. Miraculous in glass, they can even be sent through the air, and more securely to boot.
The final secure links to the IoT will come through unlicensed WiFi6X and beyond. Secured by blockchain, not through spectrum realms ruled by government and politics.
Editor, Gilder's Daily Prophecy