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What is fixed wireless 5G? Here’s everything you need to know

If 2019 was a coming out party for 5G networks, 2020 is the year you or someone you know signs up for the tech. The superfast new network is about to make a huge impact in the way we experience wireless connectivity. While often talked about in reference to mobile devices, 5G extends beyond that. It will apply to your everyday home internet connection, too — through something called fixed wireless. You’ll be hearing a lot about it in the coming year.

5G promises far faster speeds for mobile phones, and reduces the latency or delay inherent in most networks. That means communication will be instantaneous, VR will be as smooth as butter, and all sorts of crazy new concepts will be made possible. And with fixed wireless, all that technology comes right into your home. And you can get it today.

What is fixed wireless 5G?

So how does fixed wireless differ from traditional wireless internet? Well, for starters, in more traditional internet setups, a cable goes all the way to a house. The homeowner buys a router they can hook up, plugs it in, and updates as they wish.

With fixed wireless, there are no cables required. Instead, a “fixed” antenna is installed on the house, similar to how a satellite dish might be installed. This antenna then creates a wireless connection with a nearby wireless tower, which can connect to many antennas at the same time.

When the fixed antenna receives the signal, it can send the connection down a short cable and into the house, where it can link up to a router or other device as needed. Inside the house, once 5G devices are out in the world, you may not notice anything is different at all.

How does 5G service work?

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Like other wireless connections, 5G does operate on the radio spectrum, but in a very different way from past wireless internet options. It can run on the low-band, mid-band, or high-band spectrum, and different carriers are already busy experimenting with different bands using their own technology.

As of now, most of the current interest is high-band spectrum 5G using millimeter wave (mmWave) technology. The result is a combination of beamforming and direct wireless connections with mobile devices. If you’ve read anything about MIMO — a technology that lets advanced wireless routers communicate with several devices at once — it’s helpful to think of 5G as a massively up-scaled version of a similar technology, able to deliver wireless connections to a whole geographic area.

You can learn much more about 5G applications with our guide here, but for now let’s talk about the main benefits of switching to this new wireless standard.

Reduced connectivity costs: Fixed line installation for high-speed internet is a big pain. In many urban areas, fixed-line infrastructure is so expensive to install and maintain that it’s not even worth it. Rural areas face similar problems due to such large installation spaces. 5G solves these problems by greatly decreasing the physical infrastructure needed to provide reliable internet. This should make reliable internet services available for many areas that previously had no access to it.

Faster speeds: Experiments with 5G wireless have yielded very high speeds, even up to 1,000Mbps.

Fewer latency issues: 5G has very, very low latency compared to other wireless connections. That’s convenient for consumers, but it also means that 5G can be used in many important professional tasks where a dependable connection is essential.

Lower energy use: 5G takes relatively little energy to connect and transmit data compared to current online connection options.

Expected speeds

We mentioned speeds of up to 1,000Mbps, but those are target speeds in highly controlled environments with technology that’s not entirely out on the market yet.

True fixed wireless 5G, as it’s arriving, will have speeds that are comparable to current average internet speeds – around 30Mbps to 300Mbps. That, of course, depends on the location and service being offered. Verizon, for example, promises speeds of around 300Mbps for its cellular service, and says some locations could see peak speeds of nearly 1Gb. In the future, as the 5G rollout continues, you can expect speeds to start increasing toward that 1Gb marker and perhaps beyond. Lab speeds have reached 4.5Gbps, although it’s difficult to know how long this will take to achieve.

Fixed wireless installations are a different beast, and they may come at different speeds entirely. Clayton Harris turned on the first fixed wireless 5G network in the country when Verizon installed one in his house in late 2018. He claimed to see speeds between 500 and 600Mbps — with the network topping out at 1.8Gbps. Typical speeds are between 1.1Gbps and 1.2Gbps, he said at the time.

5G installation

So, if the final step to 5G is wireless, what does the installation look like? Obviously it’s “fixed,” but does that mean you’ll be seeing new wireless towers go up in your area?

Probably not. In fact, it may be difficult to notice true 5G installations at all. All the broadcasting station requires is a simple antenna. In more urban areas, these will be easily installed on existing cell towers, buildings, and similar locations. In suburban and rural areas, it’s possible that more towers may need to be built. 5G’s broadcast radius is currently rather small, and existing towers in these areas may not have enough overlap for the service. Companies like T-Mobile are working to potentially improve the radius with different radio spectrums, so this won’t be as pressing an issue in the future.

At home, a receiver unit is also required. This will be a simple device, much like the current “Customer Premise Equipment” that fixed line connections currently require, such as gateways or cable boxes. Setup is expected to be easy enough to allow for self-installation in most cases. For Clayton Harris in Houston, installation of Verizon’s 5G service involved a small antenna outside of his house connected via a wire to a router inside. That router then broadcasts a superfast Wi-Fi signal.

D-Link already has a 5G-enabled router, promising speeds of forty times your current broadband connection. How’s that for fast? At CES 2020, a variety of manufacturers released similar products, including a tiny model from Netgear and one from Huawei.

Pricing and availability of fixed wireless 5G

5g Networks and Phones | Tech Trends to watch for at CES 2019

Who’s got it? How does it work? Where can you get it? And most important, what’s it going to cost? Here’s a look at the major carriers and how their 5G fixed wireless installations look.

Verizon:
Verizon’s Home 5G service was initially available only in select areas of Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and Sacramento. Over the tail end of 2019, the carrier expanded the service to parts of Chicago. Customers can anticipate speeds of 300 Mbps and peak speeds of 1 Gbps, the company claims. Go to verizonwireless.com/5g/home to find out if 5G Home is in your area and sign up.

For Verizon Wireless customers, the service costs $50 per month, and doesn’t require a contract. Consumers who aren’t Verizon Wireless customers will pay $70 per month. The service comes with one free month of YouTube TV, and the first commercially available Wi-Fi 6 router, which includes a 10W speaker with Bluetooth playback and Amazon Alexa built-in. There are no equipment or installation charges for this service, at least at this stage.

The company is using a proprietary 5GTF standard to simulate “true” 5G as closely as possible until the equipment is ready for the upgrade to the real 3GPP 5G standard. There will be no charges for this upgrade, and it should be an easy process, as the current equipment is prepared for the standard upgrade. Expect to see the pre-standard 5G replaced with 5G NR in the coming months as hardware and software is updated. Verizon is likely to deploy fixed 5G to additional locations across the country in 2020, though it has not named cities just yet.

T-Mobile:
Similarly, T-Mobile has big plans underway. The company submitted plans to the FCC in late 2018, and predicted it would have fixed wireless 5G in more than 1.9 million homes by 2021. In March, CEO John Leger announced even bigger plans for 5G at home, writing that “we will offer a meaningful new option to millions of Americans in the form of New T-Mobile Home Internet. New T-Mobile’s business plan is to have 9.5 million customers for our in-home broadband service by 2024.”

The service will deliver 100+ Mbps speeds for wireless broadband at just $50 per month, he wrote. That said, an FAQ on the company’s site describes the service as 50Mbps. An invite-only pilot program is currently ongoing in unspecified “rural and underserved” areas of the country. Light Reading, a news site dedicated to networking tech, spoke with a customer in Memphis and others, who had mixed reviews of the limited initial service.

AT&T:
The country’s second-largest carrier is very close to releasing its own plan, and is unlikely to charge much more than Verizon’s rates. It’s even spoken about bundles such as gaming or IoT-focused options with tiered billing structures. The company has been running trials of a 5G fixed wireless service for years now, but has yet to detail what the service will officially look like. “We are focusing on expanding 5G wireless service over low-band spectrum from parts of 19 cities now to customers nationwide in the first half of 2020,” an AT&T spokespeson told Digital Trends. “We currently offer 5G+ in parts of 35 cities— in densely populated locations like stadiums, shopping centers and urban areas. We’re always evaluating new products and services that will best serve our customers, including possible device and service bundle options to get the most out of our 5G network. We also currently offer a variety of non-5G fixed wireless services for consumers, which we are continuing to expand.”

That non-5G option is a fixed wireless service based on 4G, a service AT&T describes as “rural internet without a satellite,” offering a taste of the intended market. The service is “eligible for rural households and small businesses via an outdoor antenna and indoor Wi-Fi Gateway.” It charges $50 per month as well, and offers a $99.99 per month bundle that includes DirecTV. AT&T’s service is not self-install; rather, the company’s “expert installer” will locate the reciever for you on the outside of your house and fine-tune reception before connecting the gateway inside. That service promises 25Mbps.

Sprint:

The fortune’s of the 4th carrier are inextricably tied to its on-again, off-again merger with T-Mobile. Meanwhile, there’s little information available at the company’s plans for 5G fixed wireless. In a Dec. 2019 interview with RCRWireless News, Ryan Sullivan, Sprint’s vice president of product engineering, noted that a number of customers are using the HTC 5G Hub for home Wi-Fi replacement. “Over 65% of data usage on these devices is connecting to gaming consoles. Then we’re seeing video streaming through a smart TV. They’re setting it up in their home and they’re either using it as a primary network or using it to offload.”

US Cellular: 
A dark horse in the race, US Celllular is making aggressive plans around 5G, which it plans to roll out in 2020. “U.S. Cellular 5G will be supported by a new network built to deliver without limitations, that can go through walls and barriers other 5G cannot,” the company’s site reads. It ran limited tests of 5G fixed wireless networks in 2017, but has yet to detail a deployment strategy.

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