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Verizon Makes Non-News in 5G

One feature of our industry that has given me countless hours of enjoyment over the years has been the way companies can turn important technology developments into meaningless marketing slop. On the mobile front, 5G cellular technology has provided plenty of temptation for them. How could they resist, with 5G's promise of improving the broadband service we have on smartphones with increased capacity and improved reliability while opening the door to denser device deployments we'll need for Internet of Things (IoT) applications and low-latency services for new applications that might include things like autonomous vehicles (though I, for one, am not interested in a system that relies on radio to activate my car's brakes)?

Take Verizon, for example, which in an announcement coming out of Mobile World Congress Americas today narrowly avoids "fake news" to create a new category we can call "non-news. Verizon announced it is launching "the world's first commercial 5G broadband internet service" in a few select markets on Oct. 1.

Mobile... or Not?

The mobile industry has been abuzz about the advent of 5G and its impact on mobile services for the reasons I list above. The problem with Verizon's announcement is that it's not about a mobile service! Verizon is talking about fixed wireless! Remember WiMAX?

Fixed wireless has long been fifth on my list of potential technologies for residential Internet access. The top three are cable, fiber, and DSL. I'm betting powerline communications -- i.e., sending data transmissions over electric wires -- takes the fourth spot over fixed wireless.

The prospects for fixed wireless grow significantly if we're talking about providing some form of Internet service in sparsely populated areas where the cost of installing new cabling infrastructure makes the cost per subscriber too high to be feasible. Hence the story has been, "If you've got a great view out your back door, your Internet sucks!"

While fixed wireless has failed in competitive markets where virtually any other Internet option is available, the Federal Communications Commission has launched the Connect America Fund Phase II auction, which will provide up to nearly $1.98 billion over the next decade to expand fixed, high-speed Internet service in unserved and rural areas. The auction began on July 24. Of course, none of the locations Verizon has identified for its fixed wireless service (Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and Sacramento} appear to be in any "underserved" areas, so you have to wonder just how successful Verizon's latest gambit will be.

Rural Gig

The rural market is getting a real surge in interest of late. AT&T this week announced Project AirGig technology. AirGig is a wireless distribution technology that could be deployed along power lines; the customer connection would use traditional LTE technology.

Georgia Power had partnered with AT&T for a trial, and the carrier is now looking for additional technology partners to commence commercial deployment. Unlike powerline transmission, which sends data over the electrical conductors at a higher frequency (i.e., above 60 Hz), AirGig uses "millimeter wave" (typically a reference to frequencies above 30 GHz) along the transmission path. According to Mark Evans, a director on AT&T's AirGig team, the company aims to be ready to deploy AirGig commercially in the 2021 timeframe.

If nothing else, data rates available to rural Internet users should be going up. AT&T has tested data rates in the hundreds of megabits and demonstrated transmissions at 90 Gbps. For its part, Verizon says its 5G fixed wireless will support 300 Mbps with bursts to 1 Gbps.

The Real Deal

By using the 5G buzzword in today's announcement, Verizon would clearly like you to think it's talking about a service you could access from your smartphone. Frankly, only people like me -- i.e., immersed in this mobile stuff all the time -- even knew fixed wireless had been one of the technologies originally considered.

Here's what you actually need to care about relative to what's going on with 5G today. All of the mobile operators have announced plans to roll out mobile 5G service later this year, but only in select areas. In any event, you probably don't have a smartphone that supports it anyway. From what we've heard thus far, initial offerings aren't likely to include a low-latency service, but at least the carriers are rolling out other -- i.e., non-5G -- IoT network services to get the ball moving on that front. Nationwide mobile 5G availability will come over the next few years... and when it does, you should like it.

I actually have a graduate degree in marketing, but sometimes I'm embarrassed to admit it. I missed the course on "creative but misleading product announcements."

Follow Michael Finneran on Twitter.