While the hype around 5G has slowed, finally, in its place has sprung a fair amount of discussions about how it will be used. 5G’s success will depend, not only on new verticals, but on providing better answers to existing challenges, as well.
More and more I see reports, articles, columns, and the like, about the reality of 5G. It is about time. And while it rolls merrily along, it is not entirely free of conflict. There is still some discord in the CBRS spectrum related to it as well as cacophony within the CSP (or MNO, your choice) segment (Dish and T-Mo at the moment). There is also no shortage of eBooks and reports on how to monetize 5G.
For example, a recent Analysys Mason report indicated that spending on private LTE/5G networks will be less than 10 percent of that spend on public networks in the next 5 years. This in contrast with another report that did a bit of exaggeration when it claimed that there has been “a staggering” demand for 5G, despite the pandemic. The report goes on to say that “Despite these setbacks, 5G adoption managed to not only beat the odds by accelerating during a particularly challenging year, but it is doing so faster than any previous mobile technology, as indicated by the latest Ericsson Mobility Report.”
This kind of rhetoric about 5G varies depending upon the day and the source. I read the Ericsson report and while it contains some interesting data, it is slanted to the hype side of 5G. And why not? Ericsson is the number one vendor reaping the rewards of the rift between the U.S. and China. I would be doing the happy dance too if I were them.
The statement that 5G is accelerating faster than any other wireless technology is pure “duh”. Of course, it is. But not because it is “most-est with the best-est.” It is because that is where we are in the age of digital and advanced wireless and it is following Moore’s law, for the most part.
There certainly has been an uptick in 5G rollouts despite the pandemic. I do not find that particularly extraordinary. Why? Because much of the rollout of the infrastructure is not where the main effect of COVID is being felt. It is working with technology, rather than people. So much of the work was able to continue throughout 2020.
All along, most of the noise has been in the consumer segment. That has been nearly all hype. Even today, report after report on the variety of 5G networks being rolled out show performance anywhere from slower than advanced 4G to maybe two or three times the average 4G network. Most of the 5G “news” is who happens to have the fastest network, du jour, or where a new 5G network has been deployed. Still, the performance of these networks tends to clock in at the lower end of the 5G performance spectrum.
While this is finally ramping up, so far, little attention has been paid to the other verticals 5G can do wonders for. Now, that the consumer segment balloon has burst and the reality is that 5G is not going to make millions there for some time, the industry is turning to verticals.
And there are plenty – fixed wireless, private networks, the Internet of Anything/Everything (IoX), automotive, healthcare, Industry 4.0, aviation, smart everything, virtual everything. The list is nearly inexhaustible.
The thing is that many of these verticals are in their infancy when it comes to integrating wireless or moving to 5G technologies. Some of this has to do with the fact that wireless has not been a need, or has overarching governance (healthcare, i.e. security, FDA, HIPPA). Others because they are new territory (private LTE/5G networks).
One of the biggest problems within the industry is that the players want 5G to be revolutionary and transformational. That makes it sensational rather than sensible. I’ll reiterate what I mentioned earlier where nary a day goes by without some media outlet shrieking about how another 5G network has thrown out a new record, or today, so and so pulls ahead in 5G speed tests, or 5G is much faster, better everywhere, more reliable, yada yada.
This kind of noise has no value because it is simply an embellishment. And most people do not care. The risk comes when people believe it and then find out it is conditional or nonexistent for their particular situation. Then the rumor mills start grinding and people start seeing it as just another sales gimmick.
The industry needs to step back, take a breather and concentrate on what can generate RoI. One of the most promising is private 5G networks. While it is promising, it is not without some issues. Completion of next-generation Wi-Fi is threatening to upset this apple cart, a bit. There is also the question of just how some new technologies, like network slicing, will play out and if it has the value some claim.
What about the IoX? That is a million-dollar question. There are some reservations around just how much more valuable 5G sensor networks will be for many applications. Will people or companies pay more for large-scale, 5G sensor connections when we already have a myriad of other free or pay-to-play proprietary platforms (Ant, Nest, Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, ZigBee, Bluetooth, LoRaWan, and many more)? This is certainly a viable 5G vertical but the RoI model has yet to be clearly defined.
Perhaps the hottest vertical for 5G is fixed wireless. There is much hand-wringing about fixed wireless for rural connectivity but the RoI for that is also not clear. That may change, however, since the government is finally getting its act together and working to support wireless operators in getting wireless out to underserved areas.
But fixed wireless’ will come of age once large swaths of mmWave spectrum become available. Short/medium-distance links, connected to front/backhaul links are likely to become ubiquitous for applications where broadband availability is poor, difficult, or too expensive for traditional (cable, fiber) runs. Perhaps even a competitive option for what is clearly limited choices in ISPs today.
And, eventually, 5G mobile service will be what they have been claiming. But that is still quite a way off. With the implementation of technologies, such as network slicing, orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA), MU-MIMO, new spectrum, and such, yes, we will see the early hyped performance of 5G enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) eventually.
5G will be successful if we understand that much of it is evolutionary and not revolutionary. After all, 5G is nothing more than the next iteration of wireless technology. It uses the same physics and electronics as all previous iterations – just faster and better.
The reality of all this is that 5G discussions need to focus on how it will improve existing platforms, enable new platforms, and be implemented realistically without all the hoopla and hype that seems to imply it is everything to everyone. It is not some magic technology that will radically alter how we communicate in the future.
It just needs to concentrate on making real business cases work, for now.