Can Fixed Wireless and 5G Finish What Project Loon Started?

The outside of a Google building

Floating balloons that cast the Internet around the world and connect everyone regardless of obstacles. It was deemed a pipe dream by many and at last, doubters will have the last laugh as Alphabet is calling it quits on Project Loon. The project was supposed to deliver the Internet to remote places and cover more consumers but it looks like the experiment from Google has met its end.

The idea is commendable and could benefit billions, but where Project Loon fails is not necessarily in its mission but that it could never become profitable. We have seen since Project Loon was launched great successes from Google. One of the most notable being the response that allowed Internet connectivity during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Through collaborative efforts, Project Loon was able to assist in part to provide communications during dire situations. These collaborations, however, were temporary and Alphabet Inc. has found it difficult to find suitable partners that are not only capable of making Project Loon a continued reality but can do so at an affordable price. “While we’ve found a number of willing partners along the way, we haven’t found a way to get the costs low enough to build a long-term, sustainable business,” said Alastair Westgarth, the CEO of Loon.

This is where fixed wireless comes in. We have already seen fixed wireless work in many areas of the world. From the battlefield to rural America, many rely on fixed wireless to stay connected to the Internet. As 5G continues to unfold across America and other nations around the world, is there an opportunity for 5G and fixed wireless to help reach markets Project Loon never could? Only time will tell, but there are some intriguing incentives and strong prospects that show the future of wireless connectivity is growing by leaps and bounds.

Fixed Wireless and 5G Must Cut Costs

The elephant in the room is how can fixed wireless turn a profit where Loon never could. After all, these are not wireless non-profits, we are talking about companies who need revenue, profit centers, and an EPS that excites their shareholders. If fixed wireless backed by 5G is going to stand a chance, it’s going to have to generate a profit.

5G costs can be tremendous as anyone in the wireless industry can agree, however, there are a ton of efforts to combat these obstacles. One that comes to mind is the formation of various wireless organizations including the CTIA and the O-RAN Alliance. Both foster ecosystems that are home to innovation, collaboration, and help keep overall costs down. With the industry as a whole taking a more “open” approach through open RAN technology, it is encouraging to see 5G solutions that are interchangeable, cheaper, and created at a much quicker rate.

If we break down the way the three main 5G providers in America are building their 5G networks, you’ll find that while AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon may have different approaches, a similar theme among them is the desire to build their infrastructures in urban markets as opposed to rural markets first. This isn’t a surprise but it does point to the fact that like Project Loon, 5G is going to face hurdles making a profit. Urban centers are chosen because the investment can become profitable due to the number of subscribers in a direct market. Rural markets continue to struggle to attract 5G throughout America because the investment is better made in urban markets, to begin with, and rural/underserved markets later.

This issue is being worked on, more on that later, with innovative solutions and we have also seen progress in lowering the costs associated with creating 5G devices. There is a continued desire for innovation and collaboration. In these efforts, the 5G community must persist to create viable solutions for lowering costs enough to reach hard-to-reach markets and provide a service that can turn a profit.

Coverage and Reach Are Challenges 5G Must Overcome

The reason for connectivity is due to a lack of coverage in a variety of underserved markets. Unfortunately, to deliver the lightning-fast speeds that 5G is promising, the spectrum used travels a comparatively short distance. There are three different types of 5G spectrum including low-band, mid-band, and high-band (mmWave). The higher the band, the shorter the distance traveled, but the faster your download speeds will be. This presents another problem for 5G and fixed wireless that ultimately revert to cost.

Part of the reason an investment in building a 5G infrastructure is so expensive is because of the immense amount of towers, repeaters, antennas, etc., that it is going to take to cover even smaller markets. The geographical size of the United States adds to this issue as investing in covering the entire country will require a tremendous investment when compared to countries such as England or Germany. 5G networks looking to get the most out of their spectrum will need to use a mix of bands to deliver comprehensive coverage to their subscribers. What won’t be available is the ability to unleash mmWave throughout even urban centers immediately.

But what if 5G is used to cover an individual home or building? This is the main play we are seeing from innovative wireless companies including AT&T, Verizon, and soon-to-be, DISH Wireless. The idea of a fixed wireless network capable of reaching speeds that are in line with current wired broadband connections such as cable or fiber is beginning to become a reality thanks to 5G and so are individual networks that are built for specific functions.

A big component of DISH Wireless building its 5G network comes down to the fact that they are new. AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile all have established networks that are being updated and expanded to facilitate 5G. DISH Wireless is building its 5G network from the ground up. By using a greenfield design for its network, it will allow DISH Wireless to utilize structures that are not being used and reach a wider range of markets.

Fixed Wireless and 5G Use Competition and Collaboration

Many obstacles can be seen for 5G and fixed wireless to ever make a real impact on connecting the unconnected, but there is one major component that was missing from Project Loon: a competitor. Sure, you have satellite Internet providers. We see this through companies such as SpaceX, HughesNet, and Viasat, but a direct competitor looking to bring a more reliable source of the Internet to hard-to-reach areas does not exist at the time.

There are, however, a variety of fixed wireless companies with many looking to 5G to enhance what they can do for customers. Competition in 5G is a paramount issue for the U.S. government in particular which decided to maintain having a minimum of four major wireless carriers when T-Mobile was working to merge with Sprint. This facilitated the necessary conditions that allowed DISH Wireless to come to life.

But most importantly, we can see that the way the wireless community is approaching competition is different than one might think. Sure, some disagreements and jabs can be seen in messages through commercials, but there is also a high concentration of collaboration. As we previously discussed, places such as CTIA and the O-RAN Alliance are fostering places to create solutions and push wireless forward not only in America but as a worldwide industry. This means more solutions through cheaper methods.

Innovative Solutions for Personal and Public Use Are Key

Home networks, regardless of location, can expect to see a change in what is offered for their broadband needs. This is because companies are already looking to provide fixed wireless solutions using 5G with many exciting innovations still in development.

One of these innovations includes the work coming from DISH Wireless. The plan is to create personalized end-to-end 5G networks that are built to serve specific functions. This is important because if you need the Internet at your home, you can receive a network connection regardless of whether or not a 5G network is readily available in your area. For organizations, you’ll receive a custom network that can support specific functions including running automated factory equipment, 5G connected infrastructure and vehicles, enhanced augmented reality (AR) functions, and so much more. The method is known as network slicing and through this innovative component mixed with dynamic pricing which will allow DISH Wireless to charge accurate prices according to demand, will provide customers with a viable source of 5G even in remote areas.

Another innovative solution that will help DISH Wireless and other companies keep costs down is using software to power 5G. Using software can help 5G networks not only spend less on building a 5G network in remote areas but also maintaining them. Faster repairs, greater reach, and the ability to disrupt fewer subscribers while maintaining coverage are all benefits from software-based 5G. The shift from traditional infrastructure will help more markets not only get connected but stay connected to high-speed Internet.

Fixed Wireless and 5G Will Take Time and Understanding

We know that building 5G networks will take time to physically create but it will also take time to help combat misinformation and gain support from various government organizations. There have been baseless claims of adverse health effects that 5G can cause. This can hinder creating a network in certain areas because of the fear surrounding the unknown. As of January 2021, there have been no links to 5G and negative health effects, but there have been attacks on infrastructure and conspiracies surrounding many different events. Fighting these misconceptions and backing 5G networks through support and investment will be key to the success of better coverage and connecting underserved markets.

Is America going to be capable of covering itself completely with broadband from 5G, much less the world? Only time will tell. Either way, these operations will take considerable time and investment, but if the budding ecosystems we are already seeing in wireless continue to grow, their reach will at the very least reach more people than Project Loon ever could. Interestingly enough, Alphabet is still looking to the future with Project Loon playing a role. The tech conglomerate is using some of the technology and lessons learned from Project Loon in its Project Taara which will look to use beams of light to transmit high-speed Internet.

The Biggest Advantage for Fixed Wireless and 5G? There’s a Need

While Project Loon didn’t work out, the need for connectivity throughout the United States and many other parts of the world remains. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic is helping shine a greater spotlight on an unfortunate reality that millions go without proper access to high-speed broadband. In 2020, T-Mobile committed to bringing better access to millions of homes to help students connect online to the tune of investing $10 billion over the next several years through Project 10Million. The way we experience education and work continues to move online more and more with social distancing practices accelerating many of these actions even further. The FCC estimates that as many as 14.5 million rural Americans “still lack access to fixed broadband service at threshold speeds.”

Furthermore, considering that this is only one country with many others lacking access as well and seeing the importance of connectivity through natural disasters which continue to increase in their frequency, the problem Project Loon could not completely fix is not going away any time soon. With the right investment and collaboration, we will continue to see more and more of the world connected. 5G is here but it is far from being at its peak state. There are many breakthroughs that we see every day and opportunities in the future that look promising. If 5G and fixed wireless are going to solve all or at least many of the issues seen in underserved markets or those dealing with outages, it would serve providers well to find a path to profitability because the market is there for the taking.