Rural Service Providers and 5G Disruption

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5G, or fifth generation of cellular networks, is top-of-mind right now in the service provider industry, specifically in the rural markets. In network infrastructure circles 5G means anything from a next-generation network to the next release of the wireless standard.   However, 5G is about connecting devices at (relatively) high-speeds, enabling smart city and IoT initiatives in all industries. This has some providers in Rural America concerned that they may be disrupted quickly by 5G has it becomes more and more prevalent.  Although that is a possible outcome, if fixed broadband providers get creative and keep close to their customers the disruption could be minimized.

But, let’s start with fixed broadband.  Fixed wireless (FWA) 5G will allow around 1Gbps service and is the first part of the standard released.  This requires an antenna on your house pointed towards the tower.  This requires a self-install kit or some sort of installation service by the provider.  WISPs could be emboldened with a more level playing field if they have spectrum but there are solutions from Redline available today for licensed, unlicensed, wifi, LTE, microwave solutions. If you are ensuring a good customer experience with your broadband offer no matter the medium (wireless, cable, fiber) and being their tech advisors and having great customer support the effect of 5G competition for FWA will be lessened, unless these customer’s are compelled to switch because of bundling and/or better customer experience. If you aren’t offering competitive broadband speeds today a 5G provider, or any wireless provider creating a great customer experience, can and probably will disrupt you.

Now, it really gets interesting when we are talking about mobile 5G.  This is still a few years out for rural America, Verizon and others are just now enabling major urban areas.  The big challenge today, but won’t be the case in 18-36 months, is that most mobile devices don’t support 5G today. With that being said,  if 5G providers build out their networks dense enough they could connect all of your devices in your home and business via 5G – eliminating the need for a fixed broadband connection altogether. Although, there will still be a massive need for fiber infrastructure to feed these small cells in your neighborhood.  If these 5G providers can stream video to all the devices and bundle a connected device / IoT service with reporting and analytics dashboards, provide unlimited data service, provide mobile phone service, and are able to apply security policies to all of these devices virtually through slicing and other technologies they can disrupt traditional fixed broadband carriers.  The primary limitation will be cell size and density, some of the same limitations of 4G/LTE.  Basically they will have to build out a lot of small cells / micro cells to get coverage and density needed, there is better beam forming / sector technology in 5G so you install many radios on a tower with many sector antennas. Urban areas are obvious targets first and then rural but rural will still be challenged for years from that perspective. If investing in spectrum and wireless connectivity isn’ t in your long-term strategy as a provider I’d suggest partnering with a wireless provider as an affiliate and become an enabler of the infrastructure with fiber and resell of their service.  It may provide a short and mid-term solution. 

Lastly, 5G is a foundational enabling technology for smart city / IoT applications. Right now wifi or LTE (and other technologies in various spectrum space) is used to connect smart traffic lights, utility meters, municipality vehicles, police, fire, and other assets. I believe Verizon and AT&T are after these large smart city contracts first.  Light up a city, get the IoT contracts, and at the same time provide upgraded data service to its subscribers.  Also, I believe they are after the contracts with auto manufactures for nation-wide connected car initiatives.  I’m not sure they are after broadband customers as their primary initiatives.  They want all of the connected devices / IoT apps and if they replace people’s broadband connections that’s a secondary effect – people are already on their service and using others for broadband today. For example, at home today I have cable broadband and my Verizon service, over time, slowly, my reliance on my cable service could decline and eventually I just don’t need it or stop upgrading it.  That’s the scarier part. If data caps continue to exist on 5G than that could lengthen that decline. Service providers need to and should understand the local economic and business situations in the communities they serve.  Public / private partnerships between communities and the service providers that serve them can have huge economic impact locally , through smart city initiatives, and provide a means for service providers to stay relevant as a provider. 

It is imperative that every fixed broadband provider have a strategy that has hybrid access networks – wireless and wired – utilizing the technology (and spectrum) that provides the best experience at the best price at its core. This strategy must take into consideration the provider’s role in the local communities it serves.  If you, as a service provider, don’t play in the explosion of connected devices and participating in how those devices connect to each other, you will be disrupted. 


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