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The Death of Millimeter-Wave Cellular?

Apple recently announced that it is not building millimeter-wave spectrum antennas into the next generation SE iPhone. Interestingly, this is a phone sold by Verizon, which spent a year advertising on TV and showing us speed tests on cellphones that were receiving gigabit speeds.

As a reminder for those who have never encountered the technology, Verizon and AT&T both deployed some millimeter-wave hot spots in downtown areas of major cities at the height of the 5G marketing craze. The frequency was only available on special phones made at the time to receive the faster speeds.

I always assumed that this was a marketing gimmick because it makes no sense as a deployed technology. The speeds can be blazingly fast, but the millimeter-wave signal only carries perhaps 1,000 feet from a hotspot—and that is with zero objects in the path. Millimeter-wave spectrum penetrates nothing, and the technology is so finicky that if you were receiving a signal and turned away from the transmitter, your body would cut off the transmission. The frequency is not well suited for busy urban streets. It can’t reach around corners, barely goes through glass, and is blocked by anything moving into its path.

Pushing the millimeter-wave fast 5G story was a big part of the early 5G strategy for the cellular carriers. Remember all the talks about the U.S. losing the 5G war to China? I still chuckle when I occasionally hear that old chestnut today. The federal government had serious discussions about buying Nokia or Ericsson so that we wouldn’t fall behind in 5G. The cellular carriers stirred up everybody in D.C., and we had Congress, the White House, and The FCC all issuing dire warnings about falling behind with 5G. I remember being particularly amused when a big federal government 5G summit was held in South Dakota in 2018—the last place where 5G, a technology to solve urban cellular data issues, is likely ever to have any impact.

It turns out that the cellular companies had some big motivations for pushing the 5G narrative so hard. In 2018, the 4G networks were getting into trouble. Until that year we didn’t see the first fully compliant 4G LTE cell site until that year, so most of the country was still working on some early version of what might be best described as 3.5G. Urban networks were getting so congested that calls and broadband connections were regularly being dropped. Cellular broadband traffic growth was doubling in less than every three years—and network engineers were warning management about the likely collapse of urban networks during busy times.

The primary thing the cellular carriers wanted was more spectrum. It looks like stirring up the public and politicians worked, and the FCC released several choice mid-range bands of spectrum in a shorter time frame than might have been expected. The industry was also hoping for federal handouts to somehow help propel them to 5G—but that never happened in any big way that I could ever see.

The funny thing to me is that I think the cellular companies could have gotten the same thing by just telling the truth—they legitimately needed the FCC to release much-needed spectrum. Every cellphone user would have supported the idea. But nobody ever told the real story because that would have meant admitting that networks were underperforming. My theory is that the carriers didn’t want to take a hit on stock prices—so they instead orchestrated the 5G circus that had America convinced that 5G was going to solve all of our ills. What is funniest about the whole 5G fiasco is that Oulu University in Finland, which leads the world in 5G research, said at the end of 2021 that it’s still likely to be 2027 until we see the first mature 5G cell site. We’re not behind China with 5G—because nobody has 5G!

It’s not a surprise that Apple is dropping the spectrum from its phones. It costs chip space and power for every additional spectrum that is supported by a cellphone. Cell manufacturers care more about long battery life than they do about a technology that never made it out of the downtowns of a few major cities.

By Doug Dawson, President at CCG Consulting

Dawson has worked in the telecom industry since 1978 and has both a consulting and operational background. He and CCG specialize in helping clients launch new broadband markets, develop new products, and finance new ventures.

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