The next big thing in wireless connectivity is 5G. The ramp up is starting in earnest and the commercialization date, which was set for 2020, seems to be creeping up incrementally. Field trials are starting now.

There’s an interesting twist for those who are not closely following the research and development process. Most people are likely to think of 5G as simply an extension of LTE and a technology that will serve mobile devices with faster downloads.

Indeed, that will be the case … Eventually. 5G will provide wireline-like speeds to tablets and smartphones. The key differentiation, however, is the word “eventually.” The earliest uses of 5G will not be mobile. They will be in fixed wireless applications and act more like today’s wired infrastructure than wireless. And, even when the mobile functionality is ready, 5G will remain a key element of a broad and robust family of standards.

The simple reason is that a tipping point – the equalization of wireless and wireline speed and functionality – has been reached. That has profound long-term ramifications. In the shorter term, however, wired use of the technology will prevail. 

There are a couple of reasons for this. 5G utilizes a tremendous amount of new science. Much of this is related to ultra-high wavelengths (millimeter) for transmissions. Figuring all this out is hard. Figuring it out and miniaturizing it for mobile use is much harder. There’s no reason not to start in relatively easier stationary fixed scenarios. 

Millimeter radio waves are between about 30GHz and 300GHz. These wavelengths don’t go far and have trouble dealing with obstacles (rain and trees outdoors and walls and large appliances indoors, for instance). This means that a layer of small cells must be inserted between the macro base stations and mobile devices. This process, called “densification,” is intensive and takes time to implement. 

This opens an opportunity for 5G fixed wireless. Indeed, it is a way to introduce the technology while technical work and standards development efforts are ongoing. 

5G fixed wireless is not a delaying tactic, however. That’s the second part of the equation: There is a real need and business case for 5G fixed wireless. It rests on being able to do things through the air that formerly were only possible by digging up streets and other unpleasant and expensive steps. 

This could drastically reduce the digital divide. For years, the telecommunications industry has grappled with bringing wired services to rural areas. It is a financial loser simply because not enough people live in rural areas to justify the investment. Not only can it serve rural areas, but the technology can fill in gaps or weaknesses in urban, suburban and exurban areas. 

Last month, AT&T said that it was launching its second fixed wireless trial. The carrier, in conjunction with Ericsson and Intel, will provide 5G fixed wireless services to locations in Austin, Texas. Speeds as fast as 1Gbit/s are expected using mmWave technology. Verizon is active as well: Light Reading reported last month that the carrier and Nokia are working together on 5G fixed wireless in New Jersey, Texas and Massachusetts.

An example of the power of 5G fixed wireless is a deal that took shape this spring between Verizon and Sacramento, California. According to the Sacramento Bee, the city offered to fast-track permitting and access to city infrastructure in exchange for an internet backbone and free Wi-Fi at 27 city parks. Sacramento is one of Verizon’s fixed wireless 5G test sites, and the technology was key to the deal. It was unanimously approved by the city council on June 6.

5G fixed wireless is a rare double winner for the wireless ecosystem. It will provide the opportunity to learn, test and conduct trials while rolling out services that regulators and subscribers will appreciate.