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Verizon’s 5G mmWave network has a tree problem

Just ask EJL Wireless Research founder Earl Lum about his recent trip to San Diego, America’s eighth-largest city and a showcase market for Verizon’s 5G mmWave network, which it calls 5G Ultra Wideband.

Following a thorough study of Verizon’s mmWave small cells, including coverage and performance, Lum sees only very extreme use cases for the high-frequency spectrum. He doesn’t expect mmWave to be abandoned, but rather significantly deemphasized, particularly for Verizon as it ramps up an expansive mid-band 5G deployment.

Will Verizon’s mmWave push subside?
Verizon came out early and strong for mmWave spectrum, mostly because that’s the only significant spectrum asset it had to start with at the dawn of the 5G era. “They had nothing else so they went all-in on it and they couldn’t back out,” Lum said in a phone interview.

Verizon has the largest mmWave footprint of any U.S. operator, but it spent heavily to earn that designation and it’s unlikely to ever get a return on that investment, he said.

The operator said it deployed 14,000 mmWave small cells this year and CEO Hans Vestberg recently claimed at least 5% of Verizon’s urban area traffic would be carried on its mmWave network by the end of this year. He further claimed, in markets where Verizon has an established 5G mmWave footprint, at least 20% of customer traffic traveled over mmWave in the third quarter of 2021.

MoffettNathanson analysts, at the time, concluded Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband service “currently accounts for just one half of 1% of the time 5G users are connected.”

Balancing the benefits and costs of mmWave with physics remains a nagging point of contention among industry and financial analysts. It can serve gigabit-plus speeds, lower latency, and fantastical use cases, but the economics don’t bear out.

‘Crazy and not realistic’ for mass market
“At some point it gets crazy and not realistic,” Lum said. “You’re never going to get full coverage across a city unless you deploy like 10,000 of these things.” Especially across a large city like San Diego.

Coverage remains and will always be the biggest problem with mmWave. During Lum’s survey of 40 mmWave small cells in San Diego and 34 in nearby Chula Vista, the average radius per small cell site was about 500 feet. And that was only in cases where he had a direct line of sight to the radio with no obstructions.

“Once you start going out into the real world where a building, a tree, whatever is going to shadow that signal, then all bets are off. You’re never going to get ubiquitous coverage. It just can’t ever be achieved because it would take so many sites to do,” he said.

“These beams only go so far because of the frequency band and your phone only has enough juice to go back to the network,” Lum added. When the signal strength of that mmWave beam degrades, devices automatically switch back to sub-6Ghz, a common occurrence for Lum in San Diego.

“In one case, I walked 50 feet away from the cell and I already dropped off the mmWave coverage,” he said.

Leveling that performance to the per-site costs for mmWave small cells significantly narrows its use case, according to Lum, even for fixed wireless access (FWA), which Verizon sells as 5G Home Internet. One site he surveyed in Chula Vista covered 11 single-family homes and one church.

Costs offset mmWave benefits
Now consider the costs. A mmWave small cell radio costs between $7,500 and $10,000, depending on volume, and the metal pole those small cells are mounted on can cost between $35,000 and $50,000, according to Lum. Most sites also require a geological survey, electrical bypass, and fiber trenching, he added.

Verizon hasn’t said it plans to make mmWave service available in every pocket of the country. It generally promotes the high-frequency spectrum for urban environments, large venues, transportation hubs, private networks, and FWA.

However, in cases where a small cell covers fewer than a dozen homes, as prospective FWA customers, “we won’t live long enough to make enough to pay for the pole, let alone the radio equipment,” Lum said.

Individuals that buy a 5G device and expect to use ultimate mmWave performance on a daily basis “will be severely disappointed in any of the cities that [they] go to,” he emphasized. Home broadband service is great, where it’s available and reliable, he added.

Lum said he did everything he could during his tests to give Verizon’s 5G mmWave network “the absolute benefit of the doubt,” including pointing his phone directly at the antenna.

Following this experience, Lum foresees a more narrow path for mmWave with it largely relegated to niche use cases. Especially great use cases include open factory floors where small cells can hang from the ceiling, pointing directly down at all the robots and machinery, he said.

“It was never really meant to be everywhere on a small cell pole, in my opinion, because of the limitations of the reach.” SDxCentral

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