We’ve been hearing a lot about 5G over the past few months. There have been countless TV commercials, a couple of lawsuits, and several much-publicized rollouts. Even the president has a take (we should be on to 6G by now).
And 5G, or “fifth generation” cellular technology, is worthy of the hype. It will increase speeds (particularly in high-density areas), lower latency (more responsive), and connect more devices (for our ever-increasing internet of things).
So far, most of the 5G talk has centered around mobile. But 5G home internet, or Fixed Wireless Access (FWA), has the potential to be just as game-changing. Eighty-nine percent of U.S. households currently use cable internet, according to Broadband Now, but the site also explains, “The Internet is an opportunist.” While we rely mostly on physical wires now, the future is looking more and more wireless. As Ira Brodsky, president of Datacomm Research, told us, “It’s more of a question of when, than if.”
With such a monumental disruption looming ahead, we thought we’d take a look at some of the most interesting ripple effects we expect to see in the coming years. Here are our five predictions for 5G home internet.
1. 5G won’t replace cable internet anytime soon
As exciting as 5G is, we’re still in the early stages, and most people will have to wait a while before it’s a viable option for their home internet. “It’s not ready to be implemented everywhere,” Brodsky said. “The equipment is expensive, the performance is limited. But I could see in five years, it could be qualitatively better performance and lower cost.”
Bill Stone, Verizon’s VP of technology planning, echoed those comments at NYU’s Brooklyn 5G Summit in late April: “This is early days. We’re at the beginning. We need to continue to develop and improve the technology, and there are no shortcuts to doing this right.”
Currently, Verizon 5G Home — the only 5G home internet provider so far — is only available in limited areas of Sacramento, Los Angeles, Houston, and Indianapolis. Verizon recently announced that it is expanding its Ultra Wideband network to 20 more U.S. cities this year, but how many of these will get 5G Home remains to be seen, only saying it “will roll out its 5G Home broadband internet service in some of these markets, as well.”
For its part, Verizon has maintained that 5G mobile and home will go hand in hand. “It is one network, based on 5G, supporting multiple use cases,” Verizon’s VP of technology planning, Adam Koeppe told PC Mag. “Enterprise, small/medium business, consumer, mobility, fixed. When the 5G network is built, you have a fixed and mobile play that’s basically native to the deployment you’re doing.”
2. Say goodbye to the cable TV bundle
While the cable TV bundle’s demise has been in motion for years, 5G could certainly accelerate it. Pay-TV has been hemorrhaging subscribers for years. According to Vox, cable, satellite, and telecom TV subscribers have dropped by 10 million viewers since 2012, falling to 89 million — and AT&T alone lost 800,000 subscribers in the first quarter of 2019. Contrast that with the estimated 8 million subscribers joining live TV streaming services like YouTube TV and Sling, and a clear trend emerges.
We’re already living in a streaming world; 5G will only cement that. Cable TV’s greatest remaining appeal to most people is the discount you get from bundling TV and internet. But with a better option for internet, consumers will be free to get their TV service however they choose, be it from live TV streaming, on-demand services like Netflix and Hulu, or the myriad of free streaming sites that are proliferating by the day.
“The wireless operators don’t have these relationships with the TV providers,” Brodsky explained. “They’re basically offering internet streaming TV and they’re letting the Hulus and Netflixes and the like provide the channel lineup.” You can see this happening already in the limited areas 5G home is available: Verizon and Google have teamed up to offer three months of YouTube TV for free when you sign up for internet service.
3. 5G won’t fix the rural digital divide
High-speed internet access in rural areas is a well-documented problem. According to the FCC’s most recent Broadband Progress Report, nearly a quarter of rural populations — 14.5 million people — still don’t have access to fixed broadband service at the FCC’s minimum speeds, 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload.
Unfortunately, 5G seems unlikely to solve this problem. Sure, T-Mobile claimed that, along with Sprint, its new “5G network will cover 96% of rural Americans.” But take that with a grain of salt. These companies have a long history of failing to live up to their promises when it comes to internet in rural and impoverished urban markets. And early research shows that 5G coverage is being greatly exaggerated where it’s already deployed.
5G technology just doesn’t make much sense for rural areas. “We’re talking about a very low home density and large coverage areas,” Brodsky said. “It’s not going to be as likely to compete with cable in terms of capacity. There would be lower speeds and it would be more expensive.”
Verizon has admitted as much: “Our deployments of millimeter wave are focused on urban centers. It’s where the people are, where the consumption is,” Verizon VP Adam Koeppe said.
4. Mobile and home internet bundles will be the norm
TV and internet bundles might be going extinct, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be opportunities to save. Because telecom providers like Verizon and Sprint are leading the charge with 5G, they’ll likely offer plenty of incentives to bundle your home and mobile internet plans. If you currently have a phone plan through Verizon for example, you’ll be offered steep discounts to switch to its 5G Home internet plan, too. Those options are around with cable internet operators today, too, but the savings aren’t as dramatic. “The cable operators are doing the same thing,” Brodsky said. “But they have to buy mobile service wholesale from wireless providers, so they’re going to be at a disadvantage on that ultimately.”
5. Cell phones will be the exclusive way many people access the internet
As 5G wireless becomes more and more prevalent — and data caps get higher and higher — some consumers will use cell phones as their only internet-connected device. According to one report from CNBC, experts expect that 72.6% of internet users will rely solely on their smartphones to access the internet by 2025.
This phenomenon is already happening in many areas without 5G. “I looked a while back at what’s going on in Mexico, and I saw that a lot of young people were buying a smartphone instead of a PC, instead of buying cable TV — they’re doing it all on their smartphones,” Brodsky told us. “So there could be users, especially young people, who are much more cost-conscious who could use that advanced spectrum as a way of doing three services as one device.”
Why haven’t we already been using 4G wireless internet in our homes?
In a word: capacity. As Ira Brodsky, president of Datacomm Research, told us, “A few gigabytes of data is fine, but if you need to get up into tens of gigabytes, it’s expensive to deliver that over 4G.”
Internet providers can’t be competitive with 4G home internet because its cell sites can’t provide the 190 GB per month that most homes currently eat up. With 5G’s ability to handle massive capacities of data, carriers will be able to offer 5G home internet that’s truly unlimited. As Verizon states clearly on its site, “Any device connected to your 5G Home Wi-Fi network will enjoy unlimited data usage.”
How much will 5G home internet cost?
Verizon currently sells its 5G Home internet plans for $50 per month if you have a separate Verizon phone plan, and $70 per month if you do not. Both are for unlimited data. That’s pretty much in line with cable internet prices, which average about $60 per month, according to Leichtman Research Group. Verizon also provides the first three months for free, and estimates that it’s delivering around 300 Mbps download speeds to homes in that network.
Is 5G dangerous?
Because 5G uses millimeter wave frequencies for its lightning fast speeds — 30 to 300 Ghz compared to about 700 Mhz for 4G LTE — there is some concern that the higher frequency used could pose health risks. Radiofrequency (RF) radiation has been a concern for as long as cell phones have been around. Neither the EPA or the U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP) have classified RF radiation as cancer-causing, and the FDA noted in 2018, “We believe the existing safety limits for cell phones remain acceptable for protecting the public health.” However, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified RF radiation as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”
In reference to its current stance on RF radiation and 5G, an FDA spokesperson told Digital Trends that it “continues to believe that the current safety limits for cellphone radiofrequency energy exposure remain acceptable for protecting the public health,” but also noted that “the limits are based on the frequency of the device, meaning that 5G has a different limit than other technologies.” More research needs to be done on millimeter wave radiation specifically, but for now, there’s no evidence.