Editor's Corner—With 1 Gbps speeds, Verizon’s 5G fixed wireless service will leapfrog the competition

Lowell McAdam Verizon
Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam this week reiterated the company's pledge to offer 1 Gbps speeds wirelessly. (Verizon)

Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam this week reiterated the company’s promise that “we’re very comfortable with being able to deliver a Gigabit of service to everyone that we’re providing service to,” when the company launches its 5G fixed wireless service in three to five U.S. cities sometime this year.

The promise of consistent 1 Gbps speeds to all customers represents a major new step forward in the fixed wireless business—and it should give pause to established wired internet service providers like AT&T, Comcast and Charter Communications.

The race to 1 Gbps

Ever since Google Fiber made 1 Gbps services its standard option, the rest of the nation’s internet service providers have been working to improve their networks around the country to offer similar speeds. AT&T and Verizon have worked to speed up their respective fiber networks to reach that magical 1 Gpbs threshold, while cable operators like Comcast and Charter have been moving to the DOCSIS 3.1 standard in part to maintain parity with their rivals at the 1 Gpbs level.

And speeds appear to matter. Parks Associates reported way back in 2015 that fully one quarter of Americans who switched to a new ISP "did so in order to obtain a faster service at a comparable price."

And that’s why Verizon’s 1 Gpbs pledge for fixed wireless is so important. The 1 Gbps speed is rapidly becoming the de facto residential broadband gold standard, and Verizon is promising that it can reach that benchmark wirelessly. You have to admit that’s pretty impressive; Google Fiber launched in 2011 and here we are just seven years later with a completely wireless alternative to last-mile fiber.

Verizon’s 1 Gbps promise also represents a major step above current fixed wireless offerings. For example, AT&T’s rural fixed wireless service promises a mere 10 Mbps. Rise Broadband, another rural fixed wireless provider, offers speeds up to 100 Mbps. Common Networks, which operates in the more urban Alameda, California, market, offers fixed wireless speeds up to 75 Mbps. And Starry, the flashy, urban-focused fixed wireless startup from Chet Kanojia, offers speeds of 200 Mbps, though Kanojia told me the company’s technology can rapidly scale up to 1 Gbps as needed.

So, to put this all into perspective, AT&T, Rise, Starry and Common are some of the nation’s leading providers of fixed wireless services, and Verizon is promising speeds 5 to 100 times faster than current offerings.

To be clear, wireless speeds can be affected by a wide variety of factors, including transmission technologies, spectrum used, distances from the cell tower, weather and all kinds of other factors. But that’s why Verizon’s 1 Gbps pledge is so noteworthy—despite all those factors, the company has retained its pledge to hit 1 Gpbs at all times and for all customers.

Getting to 1 Gbps, wirelessly

So how will Verizon do that? Well, mainly because Verizon is going to use millimeter-wave spectrum for its service. But while such spectrum can transmit tons of data, the signals can’t go very far. McAdam said the company’s service can only reach 2,000 feet, or less than half a mile. That’s probably why Verizon has said its addressable market for its residential fixed wireless broadband service maxes out at 30 million households, or just 24% of the overall U.S. market.

But Verizon’s service won’t just use some millimeter-wave spectrum, it will use a lot of millimeter-wave spectrum. “In order to put all of the aspects of 5G into play, you need 100s of megahertz of bandwidth. The only one who has that in a big way in the market place is us,” McAdam said this week.

And it’s true that Verizon today commands the lion’s share of the nation’s available millimeter-wave spectrum. For example, Allnet Insights & Analytics maps from last year show Verizon owning roughly 41% of all of those available millimeter-wave spectrum licenses.

Indeed, Verizon’s millimeter-wave spectrum position clearly has the rest of the nation’s carrier’s concerned; T-Mobile, AT&T and others are calling on the FCC to release more millimeter-wave licenses as soon as possible.

“Several major carriers have already acquired, or are about to acquire, significant millimeter wave spectrum holdings in the secondary market,” T-Mobile warned the FCC in a recent filing (PDF). “Verizon’s millimeter wave holdings, in particular, are even greater than it initially represented to the Commission.”

Finally, it’s worth noting that Verizon’s fixed wireless service is still unproven, and could well suffer from steep installation costs and other, as-yet-unknown troubles. But by planting its flag at the top of the 1 Gpbs hill, Verizon is clearly challenging incumbent, wired ISPs like AT&T and Comcast that may face significant challenges from fixed wireless providers like Verizon in the years ahead. – Mike | @mikeddano