The jungle book

5G home internet brings broadband to consumers without fiber optic cable

We have come to believe that the road to connectivity is shrouded in fiber, glorious finer-than-hair optical fiber shimmering, shining, uniting us as one.

Ohas one admires the threads of fiber optics so delicate and yet so strong – threads that can carry a leaden weight to the bottom of the sea, sink with the pressure and power of the ocean, and still compress high-resolution images from a camera in the depths without slowing your stride. We watch bundles of fibers that carry data from one point on the globe to another in milliseconds, moving more information in the blink of an eye than we once carried on ships in a year.

Ah yes, fiber as a medium, fiber as a technology, fiber as a tool to send our words and images flying through the power of light… fiber optics seems almost magical and mystical. Not to mention, we seem wickedly smart when we use fiber in conversation – not like in “I ate shredded wheat for breakfast because my belly needs fiber” but rather, “Fiber defines the future. telecommunications”. We can pronounce it, remember it and say it with certainty.

Just a bend, of course, your mileage can vary greatly depending on what electronics you connect to the ends of said fiber with and what service carrier you use. And in reality, only a limited number of people have a physical connection to physical fiber. Common fiber can quickly turn into an expensive proposition and despite all its promises, it does not reach everyone and will not reach everyone. Full stop.

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But is it really that serious? Not all applications need fiber to get the job done, and the path to broadband could be paved in other ways. As the quest for “fiber to the house” has taken on an almost mythical quality, saying this out loud might sound somewhat heretical, and yet I can’t help but wonder if we’ve fallen in love with a concept that we have forgotten about the pragmatics of what we want to accomplish.

History contains many examples of this. One of the most famous, of course, is getting on the rails and falling off the rails. Pundits like to point the finger at the rail industry, noting that it loves trains so much that it thinks it’s running railroad companies when in reality it’s running a transportation business. The business objective was not in big shiny engines, but in moving people and goods from point A to point B. Trains might have offered a sexy tool, but were only a means, not an end. As railroads paid homage to their technology of choice, other companies disrupted the market. Trains could be a great feature, but in the end the benefit of lower cost transportation won out.

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This year we have seen the emergence of something called 5G home internet. Catchy name, huh? For reasons I’ve never understood, telecom loves to call iterations of tech generations, like it’s colonizing a new planet or something. All 5G means is a “fifth generation wireless network”, that is, the latest and greatest technological implementation of data transmission over the air.

Put simply, this implementation uses higher radio band frequencies than previous ones, allowing for faster speeds. Most of what you’ve probably heard of so far is 5G mobile networks (and the stunning new phones that support them), but three companies have started rolling out a fixed-location version of this data lane. Some (but not all) offer services in some (but not all) areas of Cape Town.

Verizon represents the longtime telecom player. T-Mobile represents the mobile drive reaching home. And Starry represents the disruptor, with a tagline that reads “Blazing Fast Speeds. Unparalleled Service. Happiness Guaranteed.” while stating “Wireless internet isn’t exactly magic, but it’s really close.”

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Although fiber may seem like the holy grail, the awesomeness of fiber only becomes awesome if you have access to it. Do you remember those trains? Turns out, not everyone needed a train to get from point A to point B. A smaller bus or truck could do the job very well for less. Discover the alternative to the train for broadband, i.e. wireless broadband.

5G fixed wireless service may not be everywhere (yet), but deploying transmitters and receivers has a much lower cost and faster deployment time than stringing fiber on poles or running it through underground conduit. If over the past few decades our communities had added conduit capability every time a street was dug, that might be a different story, but given our baseline situation, we’d be foolish not to consider the Fixed 5G as a consumer option. Sure, fixed-point wireless internet can have burps and bumps, but it also brings reasonable speed and that just might trump a dream of yummy but unreachable fiber.

I’m not saying 5G offers a panacea…but it does give us a moment to remember what we need: the benefit of solid, affordable bandwidth regardless of feature/technology/ tool that activates it. Will you hear much more about 5G home service? I bet we all will.

Eastham’s Teresa Martin lives, breathes and writes about the intersection of technology, business and humanity.

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