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Following Cisco’s signature Live! 2021 event in late March, I recently had the opportunity to speak with Jonathan Davidson, who leads the company’s Mass Scale Infrastructure (MIG) group. During our one-on-one, we discussed several topics, including the recent Acacia acquisition, 5G and its private cellular networking opportunity and the book he co-wrote nearly 20 years ago! It was an engaging conversation and one that I believe reveals much about the success of Cisco’s service provider business unit.

The early years

Mr. Davidson began his career at Cisco in early 1995, through the acquisition of Combinet, an ISDN access company. While he got his start answering phones for the company’s TAC troubleshooting networks, over a decade and a half, he rose to solution engineering and product management roles. During that time, he even found the time to co-author a book related to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) fundamentals (and edited another associated with the deployment of VoIP). If interested, you can find the first book here. I am impressed by this accomplishment—I’m currently writing my first book, and I’m learning just how challenging it can be.  

Mr. Davidson left after his first tour of duty at Cisco to pursue an opportunity at Juniper Networks that allowed him to enter the executive management realm. While at Juniper, Mr. Davidson managed several initiatives, including routing, switching, security, and serving as the lead for its campus and data center business unit. Eight years later, he returned to Cisco in the fall of 2018 to lead the service provider business after Yvette Kanouff’s departure to pursue working with start-ups. Flash forward to the present, and Mr. Davidson has been instrumental in helping to close the Acacia acquisition that brings with it the opportunity to strengthen Cisco’s optical networking portfolio.

The potential of routed optical networking  

Mr. Davidson and I also spoke about IP and how it has driven better economics over time—especially in optical networking. Cisco announced its intention to acquire Acacia in July 2019 and eventually closed the purchase earlier this year. Despite having to renegotiate the purchase price significantly, from my perspective, it was a smart move for the networking giant. Cisco is one of only a handful of infrastructure providers that offers a complete optical networking portfolio, and Acacia complements it with pluggable coherent optics. Pluggable technology is compelling because it can simplify network operations, reduce complexity and provide better investment protection through modularity. The resulting routed optical capability also offers significant capital and operational expense savings while providing more bandwidth per link.

The old technology adage of “faster, cheaper, better” is certainly applicable for the combination of Cisco and Acacia. I recently wrote on the integration of Acacia into the Cisco portfolio following the Cisco Live! 2021 event in March. If interested, you can find that article here.

Mr. Davidson and I spoke about the importance of allowing Acacia to continue to serve its large customer base in China and the rest of the world. This stipulation was one of the requirements with China’s final approval of the merger, and from my perspective, it is good for optical networking in general. Providing customers with more choices keeps pricing competitive, but it also stimulates innovation by having more participants that are vying to stand out in the ecosystem. 

The 5G opportunity

During our conversation, Mr. Davidson and I also discussed the opportunity tied to 5G. The Cisco MIG team is involved in many 5G initiatives that span private wireless, Open Radio Access Networking (OpenRAN) and cloud-native architectural approaches. These initiatives aim to help operators reduce costs, mitigate risk, scale deployments and find new monetization opportunities. The latter is compelling given Over the Top (OTT) mobile application providers in my mind did a better job of monetizing services over 4G LTE cellular network connections than the operators that funded the deployments. While the past was mostly about access and adding unlimited subscriber data plans, operators cannot run the same playbook with 5G.

The enormous expense involved in deploying 5G infrastructure and purchasing increasingly costly spectrum makes the old way of doing things untenable.

From a private wireless standpoint, Mr. Davidson views the opportunity as a multi-route to market, but the key to its success will lie in its simplicity. I agree – enterprise network professionals have years of experience with Wi-Fi, but it has been relatively straightforward with its use of unlicensed spectrum. Private cellular networking requires the use of licensed spectrum and topologies that knit core to RAN hardware and software. It is an entirely different animal. If Cisco can make it as simple as the Wi-Fi deployment and operational experience, it will be a winner with specific use cases. I personally believe that most use cases for private cellular are within non-carpeted operational technology (OT) environments—those that have been traditionally unconnected or served by connectivity solutions that do not scale or easily talk to one another. On the other hand, I expect that Wi-Fi will continue to lead the deployments in information technology (IT) environments given the existing install base and Wi-Fi 6’s improvements in speed, latency and device density.

Wrapping Up

Cisco has brought a complete optical networking platform to market through a combination of organic roadmap development and acquisitions. Al Gore once staked his claim to the Internet, but clearly, Mr. Davidson and his MIG organization can make a better argument for their involvement. Cisco is on a mission to deliver the Internet for the future by providing the needed headroom and scale to accommodate the increasing traffic and proliferation of data (and its exchange). It is an audacious goal, but one that I believe the company is well-positioned to deliver on.  

Disclosure: My firm, Moor Insights & Strategy, like all research and analyst firms, provides or has provided research, analysis, advising, and/or consulting to many high-tech companies in the industry, including Cisco Systems, cited, or related to this article. I do not hold any equity positions with any companies cited in this column.

A giant Verizon 5G logo in an expo hall.
Enlarge / A Verizon booth at Mobile World Congress Americas in Los Angeles in September 2018.

US mobile customers are almost never able to connect to millimeter-wave networks even though the cellular industry and Verizon in particular have spent years hyping the fastest form of 5G.

AT&T and T-Mobile customers with devices capable of using millimeter-wave networks were connected to mmWave 5G only 0.5 percent of the time during the 90-day period between January 16 and April 15, 2021, according to an OpenSignal report released today. Even on Verizon, the carrier with the most aggressive rollout of mmWave 5G, users with compatible devices spent 0.8 percent of their time on the high-frequency network that uses its large capacity to provide faster speeds than low- and mid-band spectrum.

Average download speeds on mmWave 5G were 232.7Mbps for AT&T, 215.3Mbps for T-Mobile, and 692.9Mbps for Verizon. You can see the average time connected to mmWave 5G and the average speeds in these charts from OpenSignal:

The “average time connected to mmWave 5G” chart represents the percentage of time connected to mmWave among users who have a mmWave 5G-capable device and have connected to mmWave at least once, OpenSignal told Ars today. That means the numbers aren’t driven down by devices that simply aren’t new enough to use mmWave 5G—the percentages for all three major carriers are under 1 percent when evaluating users who definitely have devices compatible with the mmWave networks.

“In Opensignal’s analytics, we consistently see our Verizon mmWave 5G users experiencing a higher average time connected to mmWave 5G than users on the other US carriers,” the report said. “In this 90-day period, our Verizon users saw a mean time connected to mmWave 5G of 0.8 percent compared with 0.5 percent on AT&T and T-Mobile. However, despite Verizon appearing to be ahead this result actually represents a statistical tie because of overlapping confidence intervals with AT&T.” All three major carriers have “plenty of scope to increase the availability of mmWave 5G services,” the report noted.

Overall 5G availability between 11% and 33%

Another report released by OpenSignal today said that—when counting 5G on all spectrum bands, not just mmWave—5G was available 33.1 percent of the time on T-Mobile, 20.5 percent of the time on AT&T, and 11.2 percent of the time on Verizon.

OpenSignal’s speed-test apps “collect billions of individual measurements every day from over 100 million devices worldwide,” producing “the vast majority of our data via automated tests that run in the background,” the testing firm says.

Verizon’s lead in mmWave 5G is not surprising because “Verizon’s 5G deployment strategy has placed a strong emphasis on mmWave while T-Mobile has focused on its 600 MHz and its 2.5 GHz spectrum assets for 5G services, and AT&T has mainly used low-band for 5G so far,” OpenSignal said.

mmWave use could rise in summer

mmWave 5G was never likely to become the primary form of mobile connectivity because the high-frequency radio waves don’t travel far and are easily blocked by walls and other obstacles. The pandemic has also limited opportunities for people to connect to mmWave 5G because the technology makes the most sense in heavily populated outdoor areas and at large events.

“With the pandemic, large groups of people were not congregating as much in city centers, sports stadiums, or shopping malls—so we haven’t yet seen the full benefit of mmWave 5G services,” OpenSignal VP of Analysis Ian Fogg told Ars in response to our questions. “Additionally, we will likely see seasonal differences in the time users spend connected to mmWave, given that mmWave sites are mostly located outdoors.”

Fogg noted that “the physics of high-frequency mmWave spectrum bands means signals that originate outdoors tend to stay outdoors” and that people obviously spend more time outdoors in the summer than the winter. However, “when we see more mmWave deployed inside large buildings such as shopping malls or metro systems, seasonality will reduce,” he said.

Those caveats mean that it’s too early to write off mmWave 5G as a major player in mobile Internet use. But so far, mmWave 5G is barely making a ripple on US mobile connectivity, and it is not clear whether it will ever become a big factor for smartphone users. The technology could end up helping many home-Internet users get faster speeds through point-to-point connections, but most people would prefer a wired connection. Moreover, the emergence of SpaceX Starlink’s low Earth orbit satellite service may reduce interest in mmWave 5G for home Internet, and availability for Verizon’s 5G Home service is very limited.

Massive hype, then reality

Verizon claimed in July 2019 that “5G Ultra Wideband,” its marketing name for mmWave, “has the potential to drive broad, systemic transformation that not only benefits consumers and enterprises, but humanity as a whole.”

Verizon wrote, with perhaps some hyperbole:

5G promises more than just a faster download. The fifth generation of wireless represents a technological breakthrough that has been likened to prior Industrial Revolutions involving electricity, the steam engine, and the personal computer. It has the potential to be a watershed moment in history, one that will fundamentally change the way we live, work, learn and play. The leap from 3G to 4G was huge, but the one from 4G to 5G will likely be transformational, upending entire industries and creating new ones overnight.

Anything would be possible with Verizon’s mmWave 5G, the company claimed. “At the end of the day, 5G Ultra Wideband is about unparalleled digital experiences. If people can dream it, Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband can help deliver it.”

Verizon had launched mmWave 5G in April 2019 in “select areas” of Minneapolis and Chicago, but reviewers had trouble even finding a signal. Later that year, it became clear that Verizon 5G wasn’t capable of covering an entire NFL stadium or an NBA arena.

In April 2018, AT&T boasted of 5G trials that produced “gigabit wireless speeds on mmWave spectrum in both line-of-sight and some non-line-of-sight conditions.” AT&T claimed at the time that mobile 5G would “bring to life experiences like virtual reality, future driverless cars, immersive 4K video, and more.” The company said its mmWave 5G signals were strong enough to withstand “rain, snow, or other weather events” and to “penetrate materials such as significant foliage, glass, and even walls better than initially anticipated.”

But when AT&T finally launched 5G, it was using lower spectrum bands and producing only 4G-like speeds. AT&T also deliberately tried to confuse customers by renaming its 4G LTE-Advanced service “5G E.”

5G hype used for lobbying and deregulation

Beginning in 2018, T-Mobile used the promise of 5G to lobby for government approval of its acquisition of Sprint, and then-Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai claimed the need for 5G justified deregulation and big reductions in fees paid by carriers to local governments.

But Verizon said that Pai overturning local rules and fees would have no impact on the pace of its 5G rollout. T-Mobile was publicly casting doubt on the usefulness of mmWave 5G by at least April 2019, when Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray wrote that millimeter-wave spectrum used for 5G “will never materially scale beyond small pockets of 5G hotspots in dense urban environments.” Verizon subsequently acknowledged that mmWave isn’t for widespread coverage.

Verizon had to tamp down 5G claims

In July 2020, Light Reading wrote that “Verizon appears to be the only US operator with plans to significantly expand its 5G network in millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum,” as T-Mobile and AT&T weren’t showing much enthusiasm for the high-frequency radio waves.

While 5G is deployed on a mix of low to high-frequency spectrum, Verizon said in May 2020 that non-mmWave 5G would only provide small improvements compared to 4G in the near term. Verizon said that customers will eventually see “dramatic improvements” but didn’t say when that would happen.

In July 2020, after a complaint from AT&T to the advertising industry’s self-regulating body, Verizon reluctantly agreed to stop running ads that falsely implied the carrier’s 5G mobile service was available throughout the United States. The National Advertising Division said that during its investigation, Verizon did not dispute that its “5G coverage is primarily restricted to outdoor locations in certain neighborhoods and varies from block to block.”

Verizon has since launched 5G more broadly on the same spectrum bands used for 4G. But Verizon is now in third place in average 5G download speed, according to OpenSignal.

“Our T-Mobile users saw average 5G download speeds of 71.3Mbps, ahead of AT&T users’ score of 54.9Mbps and Verizon on 47.7Mbps,” OpenSignal’s 5G report said. “Our T-Mobile users’ average 5G download speed has increased by an impressive 13.2Mbps compared to our January 5G report, while our users on AT&T and Verizon saw their average speeds more or less stationary at 54.9Mbps and 47.7Mbps, respectively.”

Including both 5G and previous-generation networks, average download speeds were 33.2Mbps on AT&T, 28.9Mbps on Verizon, and 28.8Mbps on T-Mobile, an OpenSignal report in January 2021 found. While T-Mobile leads the three carriers in overall 5G availability at 33.1 percent, OpenSignal’s January report found that 4G was available between 96 and 98 percent of the time on all three major carriers.