5G from Space Won't Solve All Slow Internet Problems, Analysts Warn

SpaceX's first batch of Starlink satellites head to orbit after launching on May 23, 2019.
SpaceX's first batch of Starlink satellites head to orbit after launching on May 23, 2019. (Image credit: SpaceX)

HOUSTON — New phones will get faster internet than ever before thanks to improved 5G technology, but don't expect to get blazing-quick speed overnight, a panel of analysts warned.

A discussion at space company forum SpaceCom here in late November went over the benefits and drawbacks of 5G, which is already available in limited markets in the United States and will expand even further in 2020. SpaceX and Amazon are among the companies racing into space to deploy satellites to support 5G. 

If all goes to plan, mobile users on 5G will soon enjoy even less "latency," or lag — meaning that they can play videos, download large files and otherwise use internet apps and services 10 times faster than is currently possible with 4G. 5G will also support the growing "internet of things," which allows devices ranging from microwaves to thermostats to use internet services as well. People in more remote regions (such as certain parts of rural Africa or the Arctic) could have better mobile internet access than ever before, too.

Related: Space Companies Are Investing Big in 5G Technology

But there are numerous obstacles to overcome first, the panel warned. The first and most obvious one is that consumers will most likely have to buy new 5G phones to take advantage of the new technology, meaning that there will be an initial cost barrier for anyone looking to participate in this faster data revolution. Another problem is framing consumer expectations in the right way, the SpaceCom panel said, because not everybody with a 5G phone will get blazing-fast speed at all times.

Patience with new tech

Every new technology deployment comes with its share of headaches, said Barry Matsumori, CEO of BridgeComm Inc. — a company building worldwide ground stations to support mobile terminals that can handle high-bandwidth, high-security internet applications. Consumers may hear the promise of "10 gigabytes per second" mobile downloads (which, by today's standards, is quite quick) — but there are realities that they must face behind the pledge.

"Operations will likely be late, and performance will likely not meet expectations," Matsumori said. What this means in practical terms is nobody will throw a switch overnight and create a flawless 5G network, but that the network will evolve and improve over time — just like the early internet and really, just like any major app release that we receive on our phones or television consoles. (The launch of the Disney Plus streaming service, which took place shortly after the SpaceCom conference, was one recent example where an app experienced temporary slowdowns and bugs as it adjusted to sudden popularity.)

The technology of 5G will also face a key limitation; it uses higher frequencies of bandwidth that have shorter wavelengths, said Douglas Stetson, president of antenna technology company FreeFall. Because 5G uses shorter wavelengths, it is more subject to absorption in the atmosphere, so it may be difficult to transmit it across long distances unless other measures are used, such as extra relay stations. Also, the signal does not easily diffuse around small obstacles such as people and vehicles, which means that more transmitting power is required to use 5G in dense, urban environments, where networks already require more bandwidth due to the number of cellphone users in the area. Meteorologists are also concerned about 5G, out of worries that 5G satellites will create interference for weather satellites that measure atmospheric vapor, according to a recent Nature article.

Even if 5G works well and even if there is the proper infrastructure available to deploy it efficiently, there's yet another issue to consider, added Sean Casey, vice president of commercial business development at Atlas Space Operations Inc., which provides satellite communications as a service. "We will need to increase the number of base systems within a metropolitan area," he said, warning that additional base transceiver stations could overcrowd environments. That's because consumers will have an expectation of fast speeds, but the fastest speeds will be achieved right next to a base transceiver station. Farther away, speeds will drop.

It's easy to focus on the technical obstacles to implementing 5G, the panelists added, but they said that the United States should continue moving forward to stay competitive with other nations. Days before the panel took place, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators wrote to President Donald Trump's national security advisor, Robert O'Brien. 

The senators said that China is ahead of the United States on 5G progress and called for a more coordinated American strategy to speed up 5G adoption here. "China's leadership, combined with the United States' increased reliance on high-speed, reliable telecommunications services to facilitate both commerce and defense, poses a strategic risk for the country," read part of their Nov. 18 letter, according to the website of co-signer and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I.

On the same day the letter was sent, Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said he supports the idea of a public auction of currently occupied satellite transmission frequencies in his efforts to deliver 5G to consumers more quickly, according to Reuters. He suggested a public auction of part of the C-band spectrum, which is used already for video and radio programming in the United States. Some major satellite service providers, though, have said a private auction would get 5G into consumer hands more quickly. A private auction is not a popular idea among some U.S. lawmakers, Reuters added, due to such an auction possibly limiting the number of participants who can make bids.

The year 2020 is expected to be a big one for 5G, as analysts expect the first 5G iPhone and the first nationwide coverage under different American carriers, according to Tom's Guide.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace