Fifth-generation wireless is going to change American business in ways most people can't imagine. And the groundwork is being laid right now.
At a recent investor conference, Ronan Dunne, the chief executive of Verizon (VZ) - Get Report Consumer Group, casually announced that 5G Home, its fixed wireless service, was coming to every market where the new wireless standard is deployed.
It's a huge new opportunity.
In fairness, there is plenty of reason to be skeptical. The hype surrounding 5G is enormous. The technology is supposed to usher in everything from self-driving cars to remote robotic surgery. It's a lot of fantastical stuff to wrap your head around.
5G is dependent on spectrum, however. The higher the spectrum, the faster the possible network speeds. Millimeter wave, the fastest 5G standard, could be 200x faster than a typical 4G connection but it's also notoriously finicky. The mostly line of sight signals don't travel much beyond 200 yards. That means they will have a hard time penetrating walls. They also seriously degrade in bad weather.
As a result, getting reliable 5G in the wild requires a massive investment in new infrastructure. Hundreds of thousands of new radios and switches need to be installed, so wireless carriers are moving slowly.
Verizon announced in April that it would deploy 5G in parts of Chicago and Minneapolis. The Midwest cities were the first of 30 planned launches in 2019. More recently the company inked a partnership with the NFL to bring blazing fast 5G to 13 stadiums. In many of these cities, the gridiron will be the only place the speedier network is operational.
The alternative is slower 5G networks that use lower spectrum. Unlike millimeter wave, these networks will operate more like LTE, with slightly faster network speeds.
Wireless companies should be able to beam into homes multi-gigabit internet speeds without the cost of laying expensive fiber. Customers will simply turn on their new 5G routers, and presto, they'll have connections fast enough to stream 8K video, or seamlessly run automation software.
Verizon has launched 5G Home services in Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Sacramento. The $70 monthly service bundled a free Google Chromecast Ultra streaming dongle or an Apple TV, and one month of YouTube TV, a low-cost cable TV alternative.
It was a eureka moment. For the first time, wireless companies had a legitimate alternative to wireline telephone and cable TV providers. And the timing was perfect. Higher cable bills, and the ubiquity of streaming media services like Netflix (NFLX) - Get Report are pushing consumers to cut the cord with pay TV providers more than ever before.
According to an August note from eMarketer, the number of cord cutters increased 19.2% in 2019. Analysts at the market research firm predict 25% of households will drop traditional pay TV by 2022. The subscription bleed is causing an inflection point. The number of households in the United States without cable TV is quickly approaching that of pay TV households.
For its part, Verizon rival AT&T (T) - Get Report operates the largest telephone network in the country. Through its Direct TV unit, it also has a substantial pay TV business. Managers can see the writing on the wall. To fight back, they are investing aggressively in content for HBO, the company's streaming platform.
The Hollywood Reporter noted recently that Warner Media, an AT&T division, signed famed film director and producer J.J. Abrams to a $250 million deal. The Star Wars director will create film, TV and game content exclusively to bolster the digital business.
It's a brand new world turned upside down by 5G. The new access to America's living rooms means new business models. It means new players, and new opportunities.
Disney (DIS) - Get Report is getting ready to launch a media streaming service with the combined assets of Marvel, Pixar, 21st Century Fox and Disney Studios, among others. Apple (AAPL) - Get Report will release nine shows Nov. 1 under its Apple TV+ banner. And Netflix, the streaming leader, is spending heavily to enhance its network.
The entire broadcast media industry is in a state of flux. The catalyst is faster networks and the prospect of direct access to America's living rooms.
Investors should not underestimate the impact this will ultimately have on profitability for companies like Verizon.
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To learn more about Jon Markman's recommendations at the crossroads of culture and technology, check out his daily investment newsletter Strategic Advantage. To learn about Markman's practical research in the short-term timing of market indexes and commodities, check out his daily newsletter Invariant Futures.
The author of this column owns shares of Apple, Netflix, Verizon and AT&T.