Google Fiber pull-back shows broadband is difficult. But 5G will make it much easier.

USA Today reports that:

Google Fiber is halting its rollout in 10 cities and laying off staff as its chief executive Craig Barratt steps down, dealing a major setback to the Internet giant’s ambitions of blanketing the nation in super-speedy Internet.

Several years ago, Google Fiber was the darling of both Silicon Valley and most of Washington’s tech policy wonks. It was supposed to bring “gigabit speeds” to supposedly woefully underserved American consumers. The facts were more complicated. It turned out existing broadband firms were already investing hundreds of billions of dollars in wired and wireless broadband, and the U.S. topped the world rankings in the most important measures of Internet performance. Google Fiber’s demise, or pause, or whatever it turns out to be, shows that large scale infrastructure projects are hard. And expensive. And competitive. Especially when deploying fast-changing technologies. And especially when the costs of regulation are rising.

Which points to an ironic facet of this news. At the Wall Street Journal‘s annual WSJ.D conference yesterday, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson plainly acknowledged Google’s victory in the biggest tech policy debate of the last 15 years: “On neutrality. You guys from Google, you won. It’s done.” Yet the sad irony is that Google’s “win” on policy — the imposition in 2015 of old and voluminous monopoly telephone rules onto modern broadband — made Google’s own broadband deployment efforts even more difficult. We long said that Title II regulation would make broadband less competitive, and Google’s exit of the business is evidence of this effect.

What regulation taketh in terms of innovation and investment, however, technology can in some significant portion often give back. Enter 5G wireless.

Fifth generation wireless, or 5G, is a suite of technologies that will be the foundation of the Internet, and of most of the economy, for the next 20 years. It includes more advanced air interface protocols, new “software defined” network architectures, use of huge new swaths of high-frequency spectrum, and deployment of millions of small cells, all of which will dramatically expand coverage and capacity. But not just for mobile. 5G will also power connected cars and the Internet of Things. It could even become a real competitive offering for fixed residential broadband, delivering both interactive Web video and TV-like high-definition video the way only cable and fiber-to-the-home do today.

It is this facet of 5G that AT&T and Time Warner have emphasized over the last few days since announcing the $85-billion merger of the two firms. Verizon and AT&T over the last decade have built fiber networks into neighborhoods where it made financial sense. But as Google learned the hard way, the business case for fiber is tough even in densely populated urban or suburban areas, let alone exurbs or rural communities. (Google does deserve credit for the progress it made in prying open the local regulatory bottlenecks that too often discourage broadband deployment — things like burdensome infrastructure permitting and local cable franchise rules. Larger broadband firms are now taking advantage of these beneficial bottleneck openings to lay more fiber deeper into communities and neighborhoods across the country.)

A key component of 5G is the opening up of huge amounts of spectrum, at far higher frequencies than are used today for mobile wireless. Today’s mobile devices send and receive signals mostly in the 1-2 gigahertz range. Most Wi-Fi signals are in the 2.4 and 5 GHz bands. But 5G will make use of bands in the 20, 30, and even 70 GHz range. These higher frequencies contain large blocks of mostly unused bandwidth that can transmit more data far faster than today’s mobile cell networks. In a neighborhood setting, fiber-connected small cells could blanket not only hundreds of home receivers but also thousands of mobile devices. But bringing fiber to the neighborhood is far more cost-effective than taking it all the way into the home.

5G could be powerful enough to deliver a video service on par with cable TV/broadband. Satellite will still have an important role for high definition TV, but 5G can overcome satellite’s limited capacity for interactivity (given the latency incurred over the 46,000-mile round trip to space and back).

This new competitive broadband service might be enough to push the AT&T-TW partnership over the line with regulators. And it should also serve as a warning to future market meddlers at the FCC: technology is almost always far more powerful, and pro-consumer, than clever attempts to shape yesterday’s markets.

 

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