Wireless carriers and vendors say 5G can oust fibre broadband. Internet consultant Benoît Felten disagrees. He says this didn’t happen when it was tried with 4G and there is no reason to believe it will be different this time

Advocates have argued for years that mobile technology will soon outpace fixed-line broadband. A dozen years ago, the story was about how 4G cellular would be as good as fibre but need much less infrastructure. However, it didn’t come to replace fixed broadband. Now the wireless lobby is back promising much the same for 5G. 

Analyst Benoît Felten was unconvinced then and remains unconvinced. His main argument concerns the cost of delivering fast broadband over wireless. He says using wireless to connect the last 100 metres or so to the premises turns out to be far more expensive than anyone expected. 

Ironically, a network operator needs to deploy a lot of fibre to provide backhaul when building local wireless distribution networks. Felten says that in densely populated areas carriers need a lot of antennae. They can save money by simply running fibre along the streets.

“When we looked at fixed wireless networks and used internal cost models we found that in every scenario it proved more expensive than fibre,” says Felten.

He adds that wireless still faces geographic constraints too. These are often greater in hilly nations like New Zealand. “There are still line-of-sight issues. And keep in mind that indoor penetration is also often an issue.” 

Meanwhile, heavy rainfall, no stranger to New Zealand, can both interrupt signals and interfere with transmission speed.

On the positive side, Felten admits there have been impressive advances in wireless technology in recent years. 

“We now have millimetre wave. This can be directed with far more accuracy. There is also meshing, which helps to address line-of-sight issues. We now have higher frequencies. These offer greater bandwidth, although that does come at the cost of distance,” he says. 

Millimetre wave is the spectrum band between 30 and 300 gigahertz (Ghz) and can be used for high-speed wireless broadband – researchers are testing 5G using it. Wireless mesh networks spread network connections among dozens or even hundreds of wireless mesh nodes.

Felten says the biggest advantage wireless network operators have over fixed networks is speed of delivery. He says they can roll out new connections much faster than fixed network operators. 

Yet this and the other advantages, such as fast data speeds and lower latency, fail to solve many of wireless broadband’s biggest problems. Felten says there is still no way that a wireless network can consistently deliver the quality of service consumers expect to see in their homes. This matters more today with people using the internet to view streaming video entertainment. 

However, despite the drawbacks, Felten says there is a place for wireless. “We see it as a tactical way of tackling issues in certain markets and it can open up opportunities.” 

Benoît Felten is founder and chief research officer at Diffraction Analysis, an internet consultancy. He works with service providers and network operators around the world to create business models, strategies and policies.