5G is going to change the world.
It’s a familiar refrain from tech media and certain cellular carriers, but for most electric cooperatives and their rural consumer-members, the truth is likely to be far from the hype.
“It’s been touted as basically the best thing since sliced bread,” says Brian O’Hara, NRECA senior director for regulatory issues, telecom, and broadband. “The marketing has been through the roof. The reality is something very different, especially for rural America.”
5G is advertised as having the speed and bandwidth to not only provide cellphone service but even replace other internet connections in homes and businesses.
“5G will form our communications infrastructure in the same way that roads and power grids formed our industrial infrastructure,” says Asha Keddy, an Intel vice president, reflecting the claims made by 5G advocates. “It will touch every facet of our lives.”
But the infrastructure required to fully realize the potential of 5G, along with range limitations—particularly in the high-band millimeter frequency that provides the fastest speeds—mean it will be years before 5G arrives in many parts of the country, if it arrives at all, O’Hara says.
Still, 5G has attracted interest in areas on both sides of the “digital divide,” the gulf between highly connected urban communities and rural areas still suffering a lack of access to broadband internet and reliable cellular service. Lawmakers and officials in some states have gone so far as to question the need to build broadband fiber networks with 5G on the horizon.
“The hype about 5G is causing confusion in rural America,” says Kathy Nelson, a telecommunications consultant and a former electric co-op telecom engineer.
Greg Santoro, chief marketing and strategy officer at technology service co-op NRTC, says the confusion is understandable.
“They hear about all this phenomenal speed and capability in 5G,” he says. “But those capabilities require fully upgraded, compatible hardware and [high-end, millimeter frequency] spectrum.”
Under ideal circumstances, the faster speeds of 5G cellular—up to 10 times that of 4G—and its higher data capacity can enable a new level of wireless connectivity. The potential benefits go beyond fast downloads to more internet-of-things (IOT) devices and expanded use of data-intensive applications like augmented and virtual reality.
But bringing those benefits to the public comes with challenges. First, 5G is often discussed as if it’s one blazing-fast standard, when it actually comes in different flavors that operate at varying speeds based on the network’s radio wave frequencies.
The three major U.S. cellular carriers—Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile, which has acquired Sprint—all initially focused on using different parts of the radio spectrum for their 5G networks. AT&T is using 850 MHz low-band spectrum, which has better range but slower speeds. T-Mobile is also operating a low-band network using 600 MHz spectrum, although it’s also integrating Sprint’s faster mid-band 2.5 GHz spectrum for what it calls a “layer cake” approach. Verizon has focused on high-band millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum, which provides a larger bandwidth for faster speeds.
The mmWave version of 5G, which AT&T and T-Mobile are also installing in limited urban locations, is the one advocates point to when discussing how transformative the new technology is. But it comes with the most significant limitations. The signal is extremely short range, generally traveling 1,500 feet or less, which requires installing a dense array of antennas to provide decent coverage.
It’s also more easily blocked by solid objects like walls and trees. Independent tests in cities where it’s been introduced have found that coverage is very spotty, sometimes disappearing if you simply cross the street.
Finally, to provide the bandwidth to get all the potential advantages of 5G, it requires many small antennas in each array. In cities, where streetlights, buildings, and other infrastructure offer ample opportunities to attach arrays, this can be a manageable if expensive problem. But in rural areas, it becomes more difficult and much more expensive to build out such a network.
Low-band and mid-band 5G, the types featured by T-Mobile and AT&T, have longer broadcast ranges measured in miles, which don’t require as much new equipment. But they lack the blazing speed of mmWave 5G. Tests have shown they sometimes provide no more speed than 4G or offer improvements of only 20% to 30%, though both are capable of higher speeds under the right conditions.
‘Just too many holes’
All of these limitations have contributed to a growing awareness among electric cooperatives that 5G is not the answer to bridging the digital divide.
Great River Energy’s member co-ops were excited about the prospect of helping their consumer-members get broadband internet, says Chris LeLeux, the Minnesota G&T’s manager of infrastructure services.
“Then, when you get down into the details, you find out what the reality is compared to fiber,” he says.
Today, LeLeux adds, he no longer hears talk that 5G could be a cure-all. For one thing, any 5G system, even a mid-band or low-band one, still requires a fiber backbone reaching out to the antennas.
“From a coverage perspective, you’re at 2 square miles for a tower. We have areas in Minnesota where that might cover one or two or three users,” he says. “If you’re going to have to build fiber to that tower, you might as well just drop fiber into the homes and save yourself in antennas.”
Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative, based in Aitkin, Minnesota, is a Great River Energy member in the middle of a fiber build-out to serve its members. Mille Lacs is partnering with the local telephone co-op, which is providing the back-end connection to the internet.
Stacy Cluff, the co-op’s technology and energy services manager, says they’ve tried different options over the years to provide internet service, including fixed wireless and satellite.
But these options had limitations that made them less than ideal. Satellite connections are weather dependent and can have a noticeable delay in response. For fixed wireless, the challenges included “getting the towers high enough and getting it high enough on the houses, getting it over the trees,” Cluff says. “We found that pine trees here are just a killer of wireless signal.”
Mille Lacs’ service territory includes lakes, swampy areas, and heavily wooded country that all worked against fixed wireless and hampered cellular service.
“We have many areas in our service territory that can’t even get good cellular coverage now,” she says. “5G didn’t seem like it could be any kind of a viable solution—just too many holes. I don’t think we’ll see it for many years, if ever.”
The cooperative is taking advantage of a state grant program to install fiber to the home. Member response, she says, has been “nothing but positive. People are desperate for it. Every day we get phone calls, ‘When are you coming to our area?’”
It’s ‘not cheap,’ but it’s the best
The cost of bringing fiber to the home is the biggest hurdle for co-ops, notes Ricky Hignite, IT manager at
Northeast Oklahoma Electric Cooperative in Vinita, Oklahoma. His co-op has been providing a fiber connection to homes and businesses since June 2015 and has 13,000 members receiving high-speed broadband internet or telephone and TV service through a subsidiary, Northeast Rural Services.
“Fiber is definitely not cheap,” he says, but for bridging the digital divide, it’s the best solution, providing unmatched bandwidth, speed, and reliability. “Once you invest in it, it’s going to be there forever. So it was a safe future investment to be able to provide broadband and other services to our customers.”
NRECA’s O’Hara says grants are available at both the state and federal level to help co-ops with the cost of fiber. Northeast Oklahoma Electric initially took advantage of the federal Rural Broadband Experiments (RBE) program, which provided nearly $100 million to bring broadband service to rural areas.
Almost 200 electric cooperatives also have submitted applications to receive monetary support over 10 years under the federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which will disperse $16 billion to co-ops and other providers to deploy broadband in underserved areas. The winners will be determined through a reverse auction that awards money to the providers who pledge to provide the greatest speed at the lowest cost.
In October, the Federal Communications Commission announced the creation of its 5G Fund for Rural America, a $9 billion reverse auction to help to help drive 5G into rural areas, though the fund is on hold pending a federal broadband mapping effort. While it could create competition for co-op broadband in some areas, it may also provide opportunities for broadband co-ops to lease fiber capacity, O’Hara says.
Even when 5G or later generations of cellular do make inroads into rural areas, NRTC’s Santoro says fiber will continue to be the essential communications technology.
“Fiber all the way to the home is the best technology that can be deployed” while also being essential to future wireless networks, he says. “It all comes back to fiber infrastructure. Yes, wireless will continue to get better and better, but without fiber infrastructure, you won’t see much of a difference in people’s lives.”