Is 5G a Spectrum-eating Monster that Destroys Competition?


To hear the current FCC talk about it, 5G mobile service is the be-all and end-all of not only mobile communications, but the answer to most of the country’s ills. The snake oil pitchmen of the 1800s were tyros compared to the claims being made for 5G. Yet nobody even quite knows what 5G is! To be blunt, 5G simply seems to refer to anything that comes after 4G, which is LTE. After all, 5 is the next number after 4.

The key technological advance in 5G seems to be its ability to operate on multiple frequency bands at once, on any and all spectrum above 600 MHz, including higher frequencies than those actually useful for mobility. It can thus consume spectrum the way a black hole sucks in matter. But 5G isn’t, as the FCC members tweet, a race that the US has to somehow “win” against China, lest uncertain horrors result.

The likely real purpose of 5G is less obvious than its technology. 5G is more like a cult, a sacrificial cult that is being designed to kill off what little competition is left in the telecom industry.

The Aztecs were notorious for their vast use of human sacrifice, culminating in 1489's sacrifice of 20,000 prisoners of war on the pyramids of Tenochtitlan. They did not see themselves as being particularly brutal, though. They worshiped the sun god and thought that if they failed to continue human sacrifices, the sun would not rise in the morning.

Today the biggest carriers and their backers have a new sun god called 5G. But unlike the sun, we don't know who really needs it. It’s based on a supplier-driven model, not a demand pull, given that 4G LTE has been both a technical and market success, and continues to be enhanced. But the FCC knows that 5G needs a lot of spectrum. LOTS of spectrum. So they're basically handing any and all available spectrum over to the big mobile carriers who are promising "5G". It is a vast sacrifice of precious spectrum. The FCC seems to fear that if they fail to give more and more spectrum over to whatever 5G may turn out to be, the US will somehow "fall behind" in a “race”, and maybe the sun won’t shine any more. And to promote this kill-all-prisoners approach, they attribute preposterous miracles to 5G, like saving energy, making self-driving vehicles practical and safe, and, like the original snake oil, curing diseases.

5G, in other words, is buncombe. It is a mythical monster that is worshipped by killing off access to spectrum to all except the big mobile carriers who can afford to pay top dollar at auction.

There is precedent for this. In 1948, microwave transmission itself was new technology, and the television networks, just starting up, wanted to use it to link their affiliates together. The FCC ruled instead that civilian use of the microwave spectrum was limited to AT&T Long Lines, and the networks had to buy their connections from AT&T. It was a high point for monopoly.

In 1959, however, in its landmark Above 890 decision, the Commission authorized private microwave systems. Eventually that led to at least some competition in the telecom sector, and may have been the hole in the dike that eventually led to the breakup of the old AT&T and the birth of the public Internet. The existing private microwave spectrum is now quite crowded in many places. Not only have fiber optics not replaced microwave, but the FCC’s deregulation of the telecom incumbents, and market consolidation, have been making fiber services more expensive and less widely available. Microwave gear, on the other hand, has become faster, better and cheaper (pick 3).

Cellular mobility was originally predicated on the idea that capacity could be increased by reusing the same frequencies over smaller areas – more cells. But it’s often cheaper to use more spectrum and fewer cells. And the carriers are now promoting the use of cell phones to carry video, which uses tremendous amounts of capacity. They want more spectrum so they can show even more TV to addicted small-screen viewers.

Not coincidentally, the two biggest mobile carriers are also the two biggest wireline incumbents, who want to abandon most of their wireline business. FiOS was last decade’s news. Verizon has begun to refer to high-speed wireless to the home as “FiOS” too. It’s cheaper to build than fiber, after all. The wireless ISP community has proven that fixed wireless it is very effective for Internet access, though that is mostly done in rural areas, and doesn’t carry hundreds of TV channels. AT&T has likewise given up on expanding GigaPower as well as U-Verse. They will require some additional spectrum. The FCC’s auction policy will allow the two of them to essentially buy it all up in order to exclude competitors. Because 5G.

And you thought the Aztec sun god was powerful. 5G is a mythical monster whose hunger for spectrum is insatiable, but which its believers think must be satisfied lest the wireless sun stop rising.

Or maybe it’s just an excuse to undo decades of competition and return the bulk of the Above 890 spectrum to the descendants of the old Bell System.

5G was the stated reason why almost all of the lower millimeter wave spectrum, from 24 to 57 GHz, was not given over to regular microwave licensing, on a point to point coordinated basis that ensures efficient use of the band by anyone who needs it, including cellular backhaul. Instead, last year’s Spectrum Frontiers Order has the bulk of it being auctioned off in large-scale exclusive geographic areas, as if it were a mobile band. Not that millimeter waves work for mobility -- they don't. And they don’t go far – useful for a mile or two if absolutely nothing is in the way, and they won’t penetrate walls or cars. But the mythical 5G monster is supposed to find a use for them.

More likely, the real reason is to ensure that only the biggest, richest mobile carriers get access to these bands, so they can be kept virtually vacant except for the short-haul pencil-thin beams used by those carriers for backhaul to their urban cell sites. They may also use it to do a little bit of point-to-multipoint delivery to tall buildings in the urban core, but it will go unused in most places. And any new competitors, or a fourth-place mobile carrier, will have to pay dearly for unregulated fiber backhaul in an increasingly-concentrated market.

5G is the reason why the FCC wants to change the Priority Access License areas on the 3.5 GHz CBRS band from census tracts to mobile-sized wide areas. This would deprive small and rural service providers and IoT users such as utilities and hospitals from getting the localized access they need, while the big three mobile carriers would exclusively have the protection of priority access.

5G is the new reason why the number three mobile carrier, T-Mobile, claims it needs to acquire number four, Sprint. Somehow merging a struggling carrier into a growing one is claimed to multiply speeds by fifteen or more. First-grade arithmetic doesn’t even count any more when 1+1=15.

5G is the reason why C-band satellite frequencies are now being viewed as being refarmable for mobile use. Satellite downlinks (3.7-4.2 GHz) are very sensitive to even weak signal interference, but the FCC seems to think that 5G is more important than keeping satellites working, and more important than letting small fixed wireless users have their first licensed band, which could be coordinated to not interfere with satellites much more readily than mobile.

And now 5G is even being posited as a reason to change the way the 4.9 GHz band, a mere 50 MHz wide and reserved for public safety use, can be used. A recent docket may allow non-public safety users on a "secondary" basis, while making new public safety users go through costly coordination processes. Or it may even turn the whole band over to commercial mobile use, as at least one Commissioner plainly recommends. The FCC claims that the band is underutilized; radically raising its cost to public safety users but letting carriers use it for “5G” shows where the FCC’s priorities lie.

Will 5G really bring users major benefits? 4G LTE has been gradually evolving to meet new demand, and the limiting factor on mobile speed is often battery drain – more bits mean more power. The far higher speeds promised for 5G don’t make much sense for mobility. Does a 5” screen need 4K video? Yet this is ostensibly the driving force behind US spectrum policy. If we don’t give all of that spectrum over to 5G, our cell phones may have to display some TV shows in (cover your eyes, children, this is almost too horrible to imagine) standard definition!

And if that doesn’t scare the heebie-jeebies out of you, then maybe the real threat will. Thanks to policies supposedly designed for 5G, pretty much all telecommunications in the United States will become less competitive, more costly, with inferior service. We’re heading straight for an era of unregulated monopoly power. At least the pre-1959 Bell System was regulated.

Edited by Maurice Nagle
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Principal, Interisle Consulting Group

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