Although the jump to 5G cellular in the U.S. has gained considerable momentum within the last year, there are still significant hurdles standing in the way of network upgrades.
The promise of 5G, the next generation of wireless network technology, goes beyond minimizing dropped calls or allowing for faster downloads. It has the potential to offer inexpensive fixed broadband for tens of millions of U.S. households, and it's the first step for wide adoption of autonomous vehicles, connected medical devices and other mission-critical applications.
With greater clarity on the technology specifications needed to run on 5G, carriers can now provide more specific timelines for 5G rollouts.
Large Asian carriers have been the early leaders in 5G deployments, with the new technology recently making its worldwide debut at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Now, U.S. carriers are keen to keep pace to remain at the cutting edge. Each major U.S. carrier has now committed to deploying 5G in some form or another, and two carriers plan to launch 5G in a handful of U.S. cities by the end of this year. Even so, before that happens there are still significant hurdles standing in the way of network upgrades.
5G passed a key milestone late last year, when the global industry body, The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), took the first steps toward finalizing 5G standards for equipment. With greater clarity of the technology specifications needed to run on 5G, carriers can now provide more specific timelines for 5G rollouts.
That said, with any new cellular technology there is often a chicken-or-the-egg scenario. Device makers and other equipment companies are reluctant to make upgrades until the networks are in place, while carriers don't want to invest in the networks until they understand the use cases—and opportunities to monetize investments in 5G.
Most 5G deployments will be on higher-spectrum bands with shorter travel distances. Consequently, carriers aiming to roll out 5G will need to deploy smaller but denser cell sites; in other words, they’ll have to build more towers and add more underground fiber. While most municipalities see the benefits of 5G, carriers may face opposition in dense areas where residents and businesses take the stance of “not in my backyard."
Meanwhile, spectrum isn't simply available for the taking; it is divvied out through an auction process overseen by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Carriers are currently using most of their current allotments on 3G and 4G, and there are no auctions planned for this year or next. Although carriers are looking for ways to use their existing spectrum or buy from other companies, including TV broadcasters, the FCC may need to make more spectrum available before 5G can take off in the U.S.
Given the high cost and extended time horizon of building out 5G, investors are clamoring to understand the business case. Autonomous vehicles and other IoT devices hold great promise, but they offer little help to investors building earnings models for this year, 2019 or even 2020.
One area where investors could see a tangible benefit is with broadband fixed 5G, namely for residential Internet. One carrier is targeting a 20% to 30% penetration of what it considers an addressable market of 30 million households. That could add up to a $5 billion revenue opportunity.