(TNS) — Wayne Herbert is not happy with his options for home internet access. Comcast jacks up his rates each year, prompting the annual phone call, familiar to many Houstonians, that maybe brings down his payments but always raises his blood pressure.
As for competition, the AT&T service at his home in the near-southwest uses an older type of connection with speeds from the internet dark ages. The company’s more modern fiber-optic offering has yet to make it onto his street.
“Last summer I was working from home and I saw an AT&T worker on the pole out back rewiring some circuits for my neighbor,” he said. “I went out to ask him about AT&T fiber, and he said he didn’t know why I couldn’t get it. He said it was all around me, but just not on my street.”
Hang in there, Wayne. In two years, the means for getting online in Houston will be vastly different thanks to the arrival of 5G. This next generation of internet access for cell phones is projected to be speedy and reliable enough to be sold as home access as well.
Many times faster than current cell service, 5G potentially could outstrip even the fastest home broadband currently available. It is expected to open up new applications, from truly high-end gaming on mobile devices to over-the-internet navigation for driverless cars. And the companies that now provide access for smatphones will be competing with wired broadband providers.
Herbert and legion other internet users in urban areas around the nation who complain about a lack of choices should find relief. (Analysts question whether 5G will do much for the traditionally underserved in impoverished and rural areas, where providers don’t have the economic incentive to sell service.)
Houstonians can expect to see early 5G offerings, accessed by mobile hotspots, at the end of this year. Smartphones that can work with 5G will appear in 2019, and by 2020 the service is expected to be commonplace.
The companies that sell internet access are already starting to position themselves, which is one reason the AT&T lineman was surprised that fiber-optic service had not yet found its way to Herbert’s block. These traditional providers are hustling to upgrade their services, with both AT&T and Comcast ramping up faster-speed home and business service.
To understand the future, it helps to have a clear picture of current internet options.
AT&T and Comcast are the biggest among several broadband providers currently operating in Houston. AT&T, which offers both wired and wireless services, serves its wired customers via phone lines and fiber-optic cable. Comcast’s internet connection uses the same coaxial cable as its TV service, but it also has a growing fiber-optic network.
Depending on the type of internet access, AT&T speeds range from just a few megabytes a second to a full gigabit. Comcast speeds start at 10 Mbps for low-income households to as fast as 2 gigabits.
For mobile service, the “big four” telecos — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon — are all in Houston, as are smaller players, many of whom resell connections from the bigger guys. All offer a wireless data connection known as LTE, which is considered the fourth generation of mobile connectivity, and so often is referred to as 4G.
LTE, an acronym for Long Term Evolution, was launched by the mobile carriers between 2010 and 2012, and Houston was one of the first cities to get the service from each. Over time it has evolved into variations that deliver ever faster speeds for the phones that support it. LTE under good conditions can exceed 100 Mbps, rivaling some of the speeds available from wire-based broadband providers.
Anyone with both broadband and wireless connections can see the differences, however. On a mobile phone, there’s often a noticeable delay between the time you tap on a link or button to get information before it actually loads. It’s possible to use a wireless connection to power a home or business computer, but it’s not as smooth as a wired connection.
That is expected to change with 5G — a stew of technologies that work together to provide greater speeds and, perhaps more importantly, reduce delays or latency.
5G will rely on multiple radio bands to transmit voice and data. Different bands have different characteristics. Low-band waves can travel farther and pass through buildings, but they can’t carry as much data. Higher bands can carry a lot more data, but they can’t travel as far or penetrate solid objects as well.
You can see an example of the difference in your own home, if you have a modern Wi-Fi router that operates on both the 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz bands. The former can pass through the walls of your home easier, but it’s a slower connection that’s also subject to interference by such devices as baby monitors and garage door openers. The latter band can handle more data, and is better for streaming video and gaming, but it doesn’t travel as far.
Wireless providers are expected to combine low, middle and high bands to craft 5G. That requires a rebuilding of existing wireless networks that is well underway.
The higher bands needed for 5G require many antennas close together, for example. Wireless providers are using a technology known as small cells, transmitters that are more compact than those used in previous wireless technologies. They can be placed atop city lampposts, for example, rather than mounted on large towers.
This process of adding more wireless radios closer together is called network densification, and it’s crucial to the success of 5G. Houston saw a burst of activity ahead of the 2017 Super Bowl festivities, when small cells were installed around Discovery Green to make it easier for crowds to transmit selfies to their friends.
Jay Brown, chief executive of Houston-based Crown Castle, which owns cellular towers and leases space on them to telcos, said his company is in the process of building out for 5G service here and nationally. He said Houston is one of the easier cities to get right-of-way access for cables underground and antennas above it.
“In the early days, there were five to eight cell towers in the whole city,” Brown said. “Now there are 2,000 towers in Houston, and 5,000 to 6,000 in the entire area.”
Although the formal standard for 5G hasn’t been finalized, it allows devices to connect to multiple frequencies at once. A 5G smartphone will be able to talk to both native 5G frequencies and those used by LTE, providing both higher speeds and greater data capacity.
Finally, 5G will also reduce latency, the amount of time between a request for information from a source and its response. Latency will be low enough to rival that of wired connections and enable some new applications. Self-driving cars, for example, would be able to get instant navigational information from the 5G network and possibly communicate with each other to avoid accidents.
Will Townsend, a technology analyst with Moor Insights, is high on what low-latency 5G can bring to mobile gaming. Virtual reality using a smartphone in the outside world isn’t possible now because of that lag.
“One of the big services from a consumer standpoint is premium gaming,” Townsend said. “You’ll have speeds 10 times that of LTE and low latency. You’ll be able to have mobile augmented reality and virtual reality. Gamers will be willing to pay a premium for that.”
Early tests offer a glimpse of the future.
Signals Research Group, a Minnesota-based consulting firm, found and tested a working 5G network near the intersection of Grant Road and Texas 249 in northwest Harris County. Company president Mike Thelander said the setup consisted of two standard cellular towers outfitted with small-cell, 5G transmitters that put out high-band signals known as millimeter wave.
The testers didn’t have the device necessary to send and receive on the network, but their equipment could measure signal strength and other characteristics. The signals were stronger and would have delivered data faster than expected coming off a cell tower, Thelander said.
Tests done in a nearby doughnut shop and at a Tex-Mex restaurant showed the radio waves were able to enter the buildings via windows, though they probably couldn’t easily penetrate walls. The signals also bounced well off walls, enabling reception even though the tower wasn’t in line-of-sight.
The major cell carriers all are expected to introduce some form of commercially available 5G sooner rather than later in Houston.
The cellular providers are in the process of beefing up their networks that carry data between their towers and the internet, which is known as backhaul. Because 5G can send and receive more data, the cables and equipment behind those towers need to be able to handle the capacity.
The providers already are taking advantage of network improvements to offer interim, faster LTE-based services. For example, AT&T recently launched in Houston a service called 5G Evolution, which is actually a beefed-up LTE capable of faster speeds.
Broadband providers aren’t standing still, either. Comcast has announced gigabit internet speeds are now available throughout the Houston area for users who upgrade their equipment to a newer cable-modem standard called DOCSIS 3.1. It is also selling 2-gigabit service through its growing fiber optic network.
AT&T is working to bring its fiber-optic, gigabit service to Houston residents, and so far it is available to 600,000 homes, apartments and small businesses in the Houston area — though it’s still not at Wayne Herbert’s house.
He says, for now, he just wants some alternative to his current provider — regardless of whether it’s wired or wireless.
“I would probably jump to whatever’s offered just to put a thumb in their eye,” Herbert said.
©2018 the Houston Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.