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PivotNorth

Early-stage capital for extraordinary founders based in Palo Alto, CA.

5G is like blockchain

Author: PivotNorth

i think 5G is going to be a lot like blockchain: lots of hype, but few breakthrough solutions coming from it for over a decade.  It is a solution looking for a problem rather than a solution to a big important problem.

Why? Because 5G is very different.  

The demand is different.  Every other past upgrade in cellular data speeds has been eagerly awaited by consumers.   The existing applications you used on your phone suddenly got a lot better.  The good news for consumers now and the bad news for carriers is that there is plenty of bandwidth in LTE to do everything you want to do today on your phone and tablets.  The most bandwidth-intensive applications (Netflix, YoutubeTV, and apple Facetime) work great today with LTE with cost-effective unlimited data plans.

The physics are different too.  5G is going to to take forever to get deployed.  The  high frequency of 5G makes it really bad at getting through building walls and concrete.  ATT already deploys microcells for LTE coverage in buildings where it struggles to get a signal.  It is going to be 100x harder to get the 5G signal to all the same places.

The high frequency is going to drive the need for the towers for 5G to be on telephone poles on every street in a city.  The local government pushback on that will make rollouts a fight for every block of coverage.  And there is early data from concerned scientists that the 5G signal's frequency may be harmful to humans, animals, and insects. Whether that turns out to be true or not, it will take a decade to sort it out and will be brought up as a reason with every local government hearing.  

If the existing applications don't need the extra bandwidth, then what is the killer app?   The carriers are talking about autonomous cars and virtual reality as the killer apps for 5G.  But a moving car is the last application that will be able to rely on 5G as it needs perfect end-to-end cellular coverage.   My voice calls still drop at times on the freeway.  No way an AV car can rely on having an always on 5G signal. And VR will likely stay on home cable plans for a long time until 5G unlimited is offered at cost-effective prices.   If a new app is the killer app for 5G, the app developers who build it won't be able to rely on it until Apple and Samsung are shipping 5G phones in volume for a number of years and the cellular coverage is ubiquitous.  This will be a long time from now.

The one application that the carriers are launching on 5G, and the one that may be the killer app, is fixed wireless.  Fixed wireless will work great on 5G, replacing your home internet with the same service priced identically to cable and included in your phone bill.  But it will need to be professionally installed with the receiver on the roof or in the ideal window in a house to pick up the signal, with eero-like wifi repeater stations throughout the house or building.  The reality is the carriers could use LTE for this application if they'd price it right.  Until 10% of users signed up for home internet through LTE they wouldn't need to switch to 5G for capacity. And the problem is home internet is already solved by your cable company for $50/mo, so there is a price cap on what consumers are willing to pay for it.  I suspect SpaceX with have Starlink deployed in a couple years which will be the hot new home internet solution before 5G fixed wireless gets deployed broadly.

The net net: I think it is an LTE world for a very long time.







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