Starry, a Boston technology company, launched a 5G broadband service in Denver late last month, one it promises will bring, for the dollar spent, much faster and more reliable broadband services to thousands of people living in apartments and condos.
"There is so little choice of internet-only service out there," said Alex Moulle-Berteaux, the company's chief operating officer. "Many of our subscribers are cord cutters."
Starry is targeting those frustrated with the slower and sometimes spotty DSL service from CenturyLink and the faster, but more expensive and entangled packages from Xfinity. It is bringing a third option to the table, 5G wireless .
For those in reach of the signal, the network provides a minimum speed of 200 Megabits per second (Mbps), up and down, for a flat $50 a month, without caps on data usage, no equipment charges and no long-term contracts. Moulle-Berteaux said the company has speeds that are five times as fast.
Starry represents a "fixed" use of 5G. It places a device or beam connected to the fiber network high on a tall building. The wireless signal is targeted at receivers on multi-family buildings within a mile. Although the company eventually plans to reach single-family homes in the suburbs and business users, it is focused on apartment and condo dwellers.
"This is primarily an urban solution, optimized for density," Moulle-Berteaux acknowledges.
Most people will first access 5G through new mobile devices on upgraded cellular networks. Those upgrades are now underway in Denver, and the technology should be much more widely available next year.
Denver is on the list of 30 cities where Verizon said it will roll out its 5G Ultra Wideband service this year. While Verizon won't give a specific date for when the mobile service will go live, its crews are moving fast to upgrade and expand the network. And they will keep going after the initial launch later this year.
"I would say it is an intensive deployment, but it isn't anything where people would notice it any more than all of the other construction going on," said Eric Fradette, director of system performance for Verizon in Denver.
In Chicago and Minneapolis, the two cities where Verizon has launched 5G, download speeds are coming in at 450 Mbps with a maximum of 1 Gbps. By contrast, 4G LTE was capping out at 100 Mbps.
"We are very early on in this technology. It will continue to evolve and get faster," said Fradette.
Denver isn't in the first round of cities where AT&T and Sprint are deploying 5G, so their Colorado customers will have to wait. T-Mobile, which is merging with Sprint, said it has the spectrum to cover all of Denver. It plans to roll out its network nationwide in 2020, when more devices will be available to consumers.
"Verizon is putting on a masterclass in how NOT to launch 5G," T-Mobile chief technology officer Neville Ray wrote in a blog post. "They've sacrificed customer experience in a rush to claim a first and they still won't detail where they have 5G coverage, but they have no problem charging more for it."
Verizon will charge $10 more a month for the 5G option for customers with unlimited data plans. Most of its rivals either haven't disclosed plans or said they won't upcharge for the service, at least not at first.
Kevin Ribbens, general manager of Best Buy in south Denver, said the electronics retailer received the first device that can handle the new technology, the Galaxy S10 5G, in its store last week.
Another phone, the LG V50 ThinQ 5G, is expected out later this spring. Verizon is also selling an attachment that upgrades the Motorola Moto z3 to work with 5G.
"The early adopters are always excited for the new techs and its potential," said Ribbens. But he adds most people don't know what is coming or how it could transform mobile computing.
One piece of advice. Don't buy a 5G device until the nearby network is upgraded. Downtown areas are expected to get 5G service first, and then the suburbs, and eventually more rural areas. When 5G isn't available, the new devices will default to the next best option.
Promises of 5G
New technology often comes packaged in hyperbole that needs to get unwrapped, and 5G is no exception. 5G simply stands for the fifth generation of cellular technology.
It is an upgrade from 4G LTE. In that regard, it isn't unlike getting the latest version of Windows or iPhone, said Kevin Gifford, research professor in technology, cybersecurity and policy at the University of Colorado Boulder and a specialist in wireless technologies.
Although 5G can operate on lower, middle or high frequencies, most providers are deploying it at much higher frequencies on the radio spectrum, which the government has made available via licenses. Use of the very high millimeter wavelength is what is expected to change the game.
That higher frequency allows much more information to travel at much higher speeds with smaller gaps, or latency, in the signal. Ten times faster on the top end is a common refrain, and the potential is there for more, a lot more.
"It will be insanely fast," Gifford said.
Comcast, the nation's largest internet service provider, provided an average speed of around 105 Mbps in the U.S. last year and CenturyLink was down around 23.32 Mbps, according to Speedtest. Starry is starting out at 200 Mbps and Verizon's version of fixed 5G, called Verizon Home , is clocking in at 300 Mbps and up to 1 Gbps.
5G providers, because they aren't stringing cable in the ground or on poles, have a cost advantage. Moulle-Berteaux estimates Starry can build out its initial network in Denver for under $5 million, a small fraction of what incumbents would need to get fiber ever closer to customers and boost their speeds.
The speeds promised with 5G are so fast that there are few applications that can make use of the capacity. But it will only be a matter of time before developers find ways to "slurp" up the data.
"Bandwidth is a resource. It is like gold or oil, and you can never get enough. If it is there, we will use it," said Gifford.
Among the early uses expected are in virtual reality, augmented reality and gaming. Pokemon Go lovers haven't seen anything yet. But there are more practical applications, like helping firefighters navigate burning buildings wearing virtual reality goggles that show them a floor plan and feed information on temperatures.
"It opens up many more worlds for people to have," said Fradette.
Smartphones, for example, made applications like Lyft and Uber both possible and popular. With faster cellular speeds, those applications could map out in real-time where drivers are as they approach a pickup point. Here's a sense of the difference: 5G can transmit such huge amounts of data at such a high rate of speed, it will allow the cars to drive themselves.
Gifford said that 5G offers a solution to the "stadium problem" that has long plagued communication networks. How do you handle 75,000 people in a confined space cramming the network with calls and social media photos?
The new 5G service will allow more than 1 million devices to connect per square kilometer, he said. A stadium is no problem, and neither is a home filled with multiple devices connected to the internet, from the doorbell, to the thermostat, to the light switches and the major appliances.
The new networks will have much less latency or lag time. That means video calls won't jerk or jump. And if latency dips below 1 millisecond, that would allow for remote surgeries, Gifford said. Doctors in Denver could run surgical equipment in a rural hospital hundreds of miles away and not miss a beat.
Using higher frequency waves comes with some trade-offs. Like a sprinter, millimeter wave 5G isn't in it for the long haul. And it is a weakling. Don't ask it to push through brick walls and penetrate the steel and glass of high rises.
"Your hand can block it, your window can block it, rain effects it," said Ed Fox, chief technical officer of MetTel, a communications solutions provider.
In short, 5G can show up at the doorstep, but it can't easily move around the house, apartment or office building on its own. Signals need to go through a router or through the existing wiring and that can create bottlenecks.
"Current Wi-Fi doesn't have the data rate that 5G has," Gifford said. But protocols are being upgraded, and the gap is expected to narrow.
Because of the shorter distances that the waves can travel, a lot more equipment is needed to get the signal closer to customers. While 5G can piggyback on the existing cellular system, providers will need to put up a lot more antennas and poles at a lot more locations to reach everyone.
That is resulting in pushback in San Francisco and other cities , where critics have derided the equipment installations as ugly and ubiquitous and have attempted to get permits revoked.
The technology is more cost-effective and works better in cities where populations are concentrated. That means it could further deepen the digital divide as rural areas are about to catch up to what will soon be outdated broadband speeds.
And cable providers like Charter and Comcast aren't standing still. Comcast Xfinity offers speeds of 2 Gbps in Denver, both up and down, but it doesn't come cheap at $299.95 a month. In some areas, download speeds of 1 Gbps are available for $89.99 a month. Upgrades are expected to allow cable providers to get up to 10 Gbps.
Fox also said there are some unrealistic expectations on how quickly and widely 5G will be implemented. Phoenix recently sought proposals to help link its fleet of vehicles using cellular technology. But officials considered putting the request on hold until 5G came out.
"We basically said you will be waiting a long time. Thirty percent of your routes don't get service with the current wireless technology," he said.
Gifford estimates it could be three to five more years before the outlying suburbs like Golden get full-fledged mobile 5G.
The ability of the network to take in massive amounts of data will require more places to process it and more storage capacity to hold it. MetTel is building a data center in Denver toward that end, Fox said.
The faster speeds also mean that pulling down an application on a server in the cloud a thousand miles away won't cut it anymore. Applications and software will need to be nearby. The cloud will fade away, replaced by a new paradigm, "the edge."
5G means things are not only going to get faster but closer, a lot closer, Fox said.
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