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Why you shouldn't replace your cable internet with wireless

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor

Cutting the TV cord has become a popular way to liberate yourself from ever-higher pay-TV bills. If you want to do the same for your wired broadband, though, that cord can seem more like a chain.

But that hasn’t stopped a surprisingly large number of Americans from relying only on mobile broadband. That has led many telecom lobbyists to urge the government to consider wireless broadband as competition for the wired sort—in other words, a reason to let up on regulation.

And while wireless download speeds have caught up to, and sometimes surpassed, those of many ground-bound services, it remains too soon to consider it a drop-in replacement. Wireless plans sold as “unlimited” still cap how much bandwidth you can share via a phone’s mobile-hotspot option. And leaning on that feature will both smash through those limits, and burn through your phone’s battery.

The frustrating part of this is that wired broadband can inflict its own issues. Phone-based digital-subscriber-line (DSL) connections are usually too slow, while faster cable internet subscriptions often come priced to punish those who don’t also take a pay-TV bundle. And if you must choose between wired and wireless internet service, the kind you can take with you has to take precedence—do you really want to have your phone just make calls when you’re away from home?

The optimistic part of this: The next generation of wireless broadband shouldn’t impose the same limits. And some of you may not have to wait long for 5G to reach your home.

A rational choice—if you ration your use

The most impressive fact about wireless broadband today may not be its speed but that one in five online American households now depend on it, according to a Pew Research Center study released this spring.

That’s allowed telecom lobbyists to tell the Federal Communications Commission that it should count wireless alongside wired connectivity when grading the nation’s broadband progress. That would leave the U.S. looking more connected and more competitive—therefore defusing arguments for tighter regulation of telecom.

As the cable-industry lobby NCTA phrased things in its FCC filing: “millions of consumers choose to rely solely on mobile broadband services even where they have the option to purchase fixed services.”

But doing that still requires restraining your online appetite.

“Wireless for necessities is totally doable—mail, surfing/research, news streaming, limited video watching,” Katie McAuliffe, a tech-policy analyst, told Yahoo Finance. She opted to use only a T-Mobile (TMUS) wireless plan 3 years ago instead of signing up with Comcast (CMCSA), the sole high-speed option in her hometown of Alexandria, Virginia.

“As far as entertainment goes, download when you’re on a Wi-Fi network and take it with you,” she advised, alluding to the common workaround of downloading large files on an available Wi-Fi network. McAuliffe said most of her online media consumptions consists of podcasts and audiobooks, which she supplements with a Netflix (NFLX) DVD subscription.

Lingering LTE problems

That fastidious attention to bandwidth is necessary, even on plans sold as unlimited, because all four national carriers limit how much data you can share via mobile hotspot. Those quotas top out at 15 GB at AT&T (T) and Sprint (S), and 20 GB at T-Mobile and Verizon (VZ).

If you don’t use any device beyond your phone—the case for 45% of mobile-only households, according to prior Pew research—that may not be an issue. But for everybody else, just patching your laptop’s software risks breaking your bandwidth budget. For example, the latest macOS maintenance update from Apple (AAPL) runs almost 2 GB.

The wireless carriers had a stronger case to make for mobile’s equivalency earlier this year, when AT&T and T-Mobile offered options for unlimited hotspot usage that they’ve since closed to new subscribers.

Streaming video, another huge drain on bandwidth, can also be problematic on mobile. All four carriers limit it to DVD resolution on their cheapest unlimited plans, which helps to explain why none of them got a rating above “Fair” in the research firm OpenSignal’s new study of video quality.

OpenSignal lead analyst Kevin Fitchard cautioned that individual users could see better results if they used their phones as mobile hotspots. “The throttling policies on tethering are often different than those on direct connections to the smartphone,” he wrote in an e-mail. But then you crash into limits not on resolution but bandwidth: At 5 megabits per second for Netflix HD streaming, you’d chew through 2.25 GB in an hour.

But 5G!

For the past few years, the wireless industry’s reliable answer to complaints about service has been “5G.” But this time around, it could actually be true.

At the start of October, Verizon—Yahoo Finance’s parent firm—started selling residential 5G access in parts of Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Sacramento. This comes with advertised downloads of 300 Mbps, free of data caps, and it costs $70 a month on a standalone basis or $50 if you already pay for Verizon Wireless.

Early reviews of Verizon’s in Reddit discussion threads and elsewhere seem positive, but that won’t mean anything for 5G if carriers have to cap the service later on. AT&T plans to start deploying 5G broadband later this year, with Sprint and T-Mobile—merged into one firm if regulators approve—following with their own residential service.

But an analyst who’s watched 5G developments for years thinks they won’t have to—at least, not in 5G’s fastest version.

“If you do millimeter wave and you’re in coverage, they can throw gobs of bandwidth at you,” said Recon Analytics founder Roger Entner, referring to 5G’s fastest, highest-frequency wavelengths.

So-called mm-wave should open up urban areas to competition; in Boston, for example, a startup called Starry is now almost a year into offering unlimited residential wireless over millimeter-wave frequencies using a proprietary system. But those bands don’t have the range to cover rural areas.

5G’s lower-frequency bands will reach farther but run slower. In those cases, customers might only get downloads of 25 Mbps—the FCC’s basic definition of broadband—and might see data caps in the high hundreds of gigabytes or one terabyte.

That, though, handily beats the slow DSL and data-capped satellite access that often represents the best option in those markets. It will still represent a serious upgrade from what Entner called “the internet equivalent of a third-world country.”

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Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.