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5G Isn’t the New WAN Anytime Soon

By Andrew Lerner | May 05, 2020 | 0 Comments

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There’s a lot of hype around 5G as it promises higher throughput, lower latency and better quality of service than 4G. 5G is expected to offer improved bandwidth, latency and QoS compared with 4G. But deployment by carriers has been slower than expected, and coverage is nascent. Further, not all 5G is created equal; different technologies/frequencies have different coverage and performance. The result has been market confusion as 5G comes in various frequency bands, including

• High-frequency bands — 5G enables the use of millimeter waves (mmWaves) of 1mm to 10mm wavelengths in frequencies above 6 GHz. This will (in theory) support ultra-low latencies of 1ms and significantly increase data capacity and throughput. However, there is a trade-off between coverage and capacity by how far the mmWaves can propagate before losing signal strength (approximately 500 m). Speeds with this technology are expected to exceed 1 Gbps.

• Midfrequency bands — The 1-6 GHz frequency spectrum, also known as the “sub-6GHz,” constitutes the 5G mid-frequency band. It provides a balance between capacity and coverage range when compared to mmWaves. The midfrequency band speeds are slower than mmWaves, but still many times faster than LTE.

• Low-frequency bands — The sub-1GHz band is expected to be commonly used for 5G connectivity by serving wide areas and to support IoT services. Low frequencies trade off support for capacity with better penetration inside buildings and coverage from the tower (up to four miles in some cases). This solution is expected to be at most 2x faster than current LTE services and sometimes roughly the same speed or marginally faster.

Further, depending on the frequency band used, in-building penetration varies by provider and location. Typically, the lower frequency penetrates buildings better. If in-building penetration is limited, options for an external antenna need to be considered, (which typically comes with a fee).

So where does this leave us with 5G in the WAN?

We expect 5G to be used in specific scenarios including retail, IoT, kiosks, temporary/seasonable businesses, rapid location turnup, first responders, construction, and as a backup line (side note:  kinda sounds a lot like 4G huh…) Additionally, where available for more rural locations, we do see 5G used as a primary connectivity option when other wired access options don’t offer sufficient performance. But we don’t see 5G replacing traditional wired internet access options on a meaningful scale for the foreseeable future. In fact, we recommend avoiding 5G as the primary link for high-volume or mission-critical sites. This is just a small snippet of our 5G research, taken from this published research:

Don’t Expect 5G to Replace Wired Access WANs Anytime Soon
Summary: 5G promises to offer higher throughput, lower latency and better quality of service than 4G. But limited coverage and other impediments complicate its adoption as a WAN access option. This research offers advice for infrastructure and operations leaders on where and where not to use 5G.

Regards, Andrew

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