By Russ Steele
Ever wonder what the LTE in 4G LTE stood for? I always thought that LTE was the abbreviation for 4G light. In one sense it is as 4G LTE does not meet the minimum ITE standard for 4G, so it was designated 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE). Almost 4G but not quite. It does not matter what LTE stands for in those communities that do not have any 4G LTE networks by any of the four telco providers.
As you can see on the map below, there are large swaths of California census blocks which do not have a single provider of 4G LTE. FCC has designated these rural blue areas eligible for subsidies, under the Mobility Fund Phase II Program.
Mobility Fund Phase II (MF-II) will make up to $4.53 billion in support available over 10 years to primarily rural areas that lack unsubsidized 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) service. MF-II is critically important to supporting mobile voice and broadband coverage, incentivizing the deployment of mobile wireless service through a reverse auction, and ensuring that 4G LTE service is preserved and advanced in those areas of the country that lack unsubsidized service.
Under this schedule, it could be another 10 years before some communities final get 4G LTE service, if at all. While the Federal Government is subsidizing the build-out, one of the four telcos has to decide to bid for the subsidy and then take the risk they can build a sustainable system, without additional subsidies.
The 5G rollout is expected to follow a similar path as 4G in the evolution from 3G. The 4G rollout started in the dense urban cities and then moved to the transportation corridors and then to the suburbs and final into some rural areas with populations density was high enough to support the telco ROI calculations. AT&T started offering 4G LTE in 2011, Verizon in 2010, Sprint in 2012 and T-Mobile in 2013. Eight years later many communities still do not have reliable 4G LTE coverage.
After eight years there are still rural communities with 3G service or no broadband service at all. It is highly likely that these rural communities will ever see 5G.
The ITU IMT-2020 specification requires 5G to feature peak speeds of 20Gbps, but as we saw from 4G LTE, we can realistically expect those sorts of speeds 10 years from now. Even then, those speeds are only expected when using short-range mmWave spectrum, not longer range sub-6GHz spectrum. That means as per usual, rural areas won’t feel the benefit for a while, if at all. For now, consumers living in urban areas should expect speeds in line with LTE Advanced (or, one might say, true 4G) that will incrementally improve each year.
For rural communities that do not have 4G LTE, it will be hard to benefit from an upgrade to full 4G which will take place over the next ten years. What are rural communities to do in the interim? Let’s look at some other timelines, the LEO satellite timelines.
Just last week (02-27-2019) OneWeb launched the first six of a 600 Satellite constellation, and under the FCC agreement must have all satellites launched in six years.
SpaceX will start launching phase one satellites in late 2019 with a full constellation of 4,425 by 2024. The SpaceX LEO constellations are expected to provide G5 level speeds at fiber network latency of 25-35ms.
Telesat, which operates a large fleet of geo sync statutes announced a smaller 117 satellite LEO constellation and plans to deliver the first service in 2021.
Given these timelines, if they hold up, rural communities could have access to space-based broadband long before some will see 4G LTE or 5G. It is time they stop fretting over when will they get terrestrial 5G and start thinking about how they can benefit from space-based broadband access. Go LEO Satellites