5G networks are slowly but steadily blanketing the world, and though the lightning-fast speeds we’ve been promised are a little tough to find, you can expect to see some changes. One of those changes could be serious disruptions to your home internet. Could 5G one day replace your home broadband connection and keep all of your devices online?
The short answer is yes. The benefits that 5G brings in terms of faster download speeds, faster upload speeds, more bandwidth and lower latency mean that it’s very possible to get online using 5G rather than a conventional broadband link — but there’s a lot you need to know before choosing 5G broadband (and a few caveats worth mentioning, too).
This switch from wired to wireless for home internet is already a reality with 4G LTE. Getting online via a cellular network rather than a traditional wired internet connection isn’t new, but as these networks are becoming more robust, faster, and cheaper, it’s becoming a more viable proposition for more people. The arrival of 5G has the potential to accelerate that process even more quickly.
Stick a SIM card in a router that can hook up wirelessly to a 4G LTE or 5G antenna, and that router can then create a wireless network much like the ones we’re already used to, using new technology like Wi-Fi 6. It’s just that the router is connected to the internet backbone wirelessly rather than through a cable running up to your property.
That setup certainly has its advantages, especially in rural areas where the traditional broadband infrastructure isn’t up to a good standard or seemingly any standard at all. But whether or not it’s ultimately going to be right — or if you’ll even be able to try it out — will depend on the usual mix of factors, including cost, availability, and network coverage.
5G coverage in your area is of course going to be crucial. If the coverage is good, then download speeds of up to a gigabit per second should be possible, which may be significantly better than the best fibre optic or cable broadband options available to you. But if 5G does have a weakness, it’s range (and line of sight for the fastest mmWave bands). If you’re some distance away from a tower, then a normal hook-up to the internet might still be preferable.
In the U.S., Verizon’s 5G Home service is already live in a small number of select cities, giving average speeds of 300 Mbps for $US70 ($91) every month. There are no data caps, and you get a Wi-Fi 6 router to convert the 5G signal into precious Wi-Fi that all your gadgets can connect to. It’ll also fall back to 4G LTE if 5G isn’t available.
AT&T for its part also sells a 5G hotspot device, ready to connect up to 32 different devices through 5G and a local Wi-Fi 6 network — yours for a mere $US510 ($660). For now though, the data packages you can get with the hotspot are on the restrictive side, so it’s not quite ready to do all the heavy lifting that you are likely to need from a home broadband connection.
T-Mobile, meanwhile, has promised to upgrade its fledgling 4G home internet service to 5G at some point during the next year, free from data caps. As with Verizon, 1 Gbps is the maximum data transfer rate mentioned, though actual real world speeds are likely to be lower than that, what with distances and interference to take into account.
The biggest barrier to widespread adoption won’t be whether or not the technology is actually capable of doing this, but whether or not network providers are able to get it to make sense economically. The best 5G coverage for home broadband might be too expensive to deploy fully, leaving more affordable but less speedy alternatives that are subject to data and bandwidth restrictions that reduce their appeal.
A home full of laptops, media streaming boxes, and smart speakers is of course going to chew through data much faster than a 5G-enabled mobile phone would. The benefits that 5G brings should be enough to cope with the extra load, even in densely populated areas, but the question is whether or not full-fat 5G will be available at your address.
In other words, in more remote parts of the world where 5G antennas aren’t as densely packed as they need to be, the same connectivity problems apply. Right now it’s not clear yet whether 5G will solve rural problem or not — there are too many plates still spinning — and it might end up only being a viable home broadband option for city dwellers.
The costs of buying 5G spectrum, building out the infrastructure, and trying to recoup money from customers are all equally significant. While other wireless technologies such as the SpaceX Starlink project are also being developed, it remains to be seen whether 5G will become available widely as a home internet solution. It certainly has the potential.