5G might be your next home broadband service

AT&T plans to test next-generation wireless gear for both fixed and mobile services

An AT&T regulatory filing last week shed light on a lesser-known aspect of the emerging 5G wireless standard that could be a boon to some consumers: Home broadband.

AT&T asked the Federal Communications Commission for permission to test potential 5G technologies in Austin, Texas. It needs permission to use several frequency bands for the experiments. The application, which industry analyst Steve Crowley pointed out on Twitter, says AT&T wants to build a multi-gigabit experimental network for both fixed and mobile services.

Getting fixed wireless might involve mounting an antenna on your windowsill, but the upside could be gigabit broadband rolled out to the neighborhood much sooner. Wired carriers want a faster, cheaper way to deploy gigabit, Ovum analyst Daryl Schoolar said.

All the frequencies AT&T wants to test are high by cellular standards, so they would have shorter ranges than most bands used today. Some are far above what any smartphone uses now, going into so-called millimeter waves like 28GHz. They offer fat bands of relatively unused spectrum. "It's not going to be clogged up with my iPhone and your iPhone, and Android, and all that," Schoolar said.

But at those kinds of frequencies, 5G is almost certain to be used -- at first -- between two fixed radios instead of in a cell that talks to mobile devices like phones, analysts said. Millimeter-wave mobile networks are many years from real-world deployments, though they are part of the long-term vision for 5G.

Fixed wireless services have a checkered history. Onetime U.S. service provider Clearwire, for example, sank billions into a network that never reached a national scale. The company was finally absorbed into Sprint. Another fixed-wireless startup, Starry Internet, launched this month and immediately faced some doubts about its business model.

But advances in technology, including the use of those high-frequency bands, could make beaming data to and from homes a great use of wireless for big players like AT&T, analysts say.

"The incumbents have the advantage that they're not doing it as a standalone, they're doing it as a complement to the existing infrastructure," said Tolaga Research analyst Phil Marshall.

AT&T is seeking a three-year license to run tests before the 5G standard starts to get locked down around 2018-2019. 5G is expected to launch commercially starting in 2020. AT&T won't be alone: Its U.S. rival Verizon is also expected to include fixed wireless in its 5G trials, which are set to begin this year.

Thanks to developments like antenna systems for sending multiple, targeted streams of data through the air, called MU-MIMO (multi-user, multiple in, multiple out), fixed wireless can now meet or beat the speed of wired broadband services like cable, fiber and DSL (digital subscriber line).

Though advances may open up the market to new competitors like Starry, which plans to use MU-MIMO for a 1Gbps (bit-per-second) service, established carriers like AT&T and Verizon are the best equipped to take advantage of fixed technology, Schoolar said. Unlike in traditional cellular, one tower can't cover a neighborhood with this kind of service. It takes many smaller cells, closer to homes, to serve subscribers on millimeter-wave frequencies. More cells usually means more wires needed behind the cells, which gives the big wired carriers an advantage.

The need for more radios makes fixed wireless more expensive than traditional cellular. But it starts to look cheap and quick when compared with digging up subscribers' yards to put fiber in the ground.

So fixed wireless is likely to be part of the mix for service providers rolling out faster broadband over the next several years. They'll look to deploy it in densely populated neighborhoods, areas where they aren't the incumbent carrier, and anywhere it's particularly hard or expensive to bring fiber to homes, Marshall said.

If that description fits where you live, the fat pipe you're looking for might turn out to be a fat wave.

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Stephen Lawson

IDG News Service
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