I cannot recall, in all the years I have been in both wireless and media, any platform or technology beset with a nonstop effort to convince everyone it is the greatest thing since sliced bread. For the last couple of years, the concerted effort, by any number of entities focused on 5G and its perceived value, has been over the top.
I have taken a more conservative approach to what 5G is and what it will do. Most of my positions have been around 5G simply being the next iteration of wireless networking, and other than the next enabling platform for wireless, it is simply another pipe – better, faster, more intelligent, robust, but just another pipe. And that, in itself, does not have a whole lot of value. The value comes with what it will enable.
If we look at 4G, all it did was offer a platform for additional functionality beyond 3G. It combined voice, data and media. It added improved technology, services and features. 5G will do, exactly, the same thing, with even more of it (enhanced machine-type communications – eMTC, ultra-reliable low-latency communications – URLLC, enhanced mobile broadband – eMBB, massive MIMO, frequency agility, etc.), which will enable a new paradigm in functions and features. Few care that it uses CP-OFDM1 and DFT-Spread (DFT-S) OFDM versus just plain old OFDM!
Finally, it seems that the cooler heads in the industry are beginning to realize this. More and more, I am seeing industry analysts, some media and independent SMEs coming around to a similar perspective as mine. The latest being a headline that read: “5G will not amount to a hill of beans, and by itself is not enough” to paraphrase a columnist in a news feed I just received. He is right. Connectivity is just not a money-making proposition, anymore.
I write, regularly, about verticals that have great potential in 5G so I will not go there this time. What I would like to do, however, is present a similar scenario that has a longer history than 5G, but, with similar challenges, and can be looked at as a loose model – FTTx.
Some might disagree, citing that 5G is a much more robust and varied pipeline. However, the basic premise, I believe, is similar. The value proposition for fiber is bandwidth, aka speed. This enables a slew of verticals. If it did not, the fiber channel, itself, would not generate revenue. Connectivity does not sell (unless you are at the North Pole, of course). It has been shown, over and over, that end users, mostly consumers who drive much of this, do not care what the pipe is as long as they can accomplish what they need and what they want.
The best argument is that, 5G is just another layer of plumbing. And, while slick and innovative, its only value is in carrying data – faster, better and with more capabilities, but still data. This should spark innovation, some argue. That is true. However, in the end, 5G will not sell without riders. The utility network is not significant enough to innovate higher up the stack. That requires verticals that can benefit from the advanced metrics of 5G. Others argue that this plumbing, as slick and innovative, as it is, will. However, that does not change the fact that it is still just plumbing.
Another argument is that 5G will afford network operators ways to differentiate their services. Implementing new technologies such as network slicing, frequency agility, self-healing and self-managing capabilities, and more – to offer different strokes for different folks will emerge. New tiers of service beget new streams of revenue, and ways to innovate around the plumbing.
Some of these services will expand into the enterprise where there is real potential. Real-time operational control, enabled by ultra-low latency will bring new eMTM to offices, factories, campuses, stadiums, city centers, entertainment venues, and more. Here bandwidth, is a critical player since small cells and edge networks are what will enable enhanced end-user experience. Still, the bandwidth is just enhanced plumbing.
However, as exciting as the technical aspects of 5G are, they will not guarantee a brighter future for telecom operators. And, the telecom operators are still slow in understanding that. 5G does not offer a way, on its own, for operators to reinvent themselves. Nobody is any more interested in network slicing, modulation schemes, layer improvements and the like than any other technical enhancement. They are only interested in what it can do for them. Again, in the end, 5G – even as it ebbs and tides – is just another utility service. The answer is apps, features, and functionality.
Some will point to the enterprise as an “operator savior.” The enterprise does offer a lot of potential and they are ready to invest if they see the benefits. But again, the benefits are not 5G. They are better in-building networks, more and faster app environments and autonomous network management, to name a few. However, the enterprise is not, singularly, the segment that will sell 5G. Neither will the industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) or Industry 4.0. They are markets, certainly, particularly for low-latency and real-time, autonomous AI-enabled control. However, they are still rather niched, waiting for technological advances in the hardware.
Operators will have to accelerate their programs to reach beyond connectivity, to develop and acquire complementary services to transform industry and drive innovation. Some are catching on with M&As and forging partnerships that will deliver content, for example.
That is the key. If content, apps, and functionality is over the top on 5G, they will come and the investment in the 5G overlay will pay back. However, eventually, 5G (as will 6G and 7G, and any other evolving G) will be seen as nothing more than an icon on the smartphone by most of the population. Or a better end-user experience in any number of segments. Such as fixed wireless. It will also enable new platforms – autonomous vehicles, smart “x,” edge networks and more. But, again no one will care that their intelligent vehicles are enabled by 5G.
While I would love 5G to be a sexy, electrifying, fireworks-generatingpermutation of the next big wireless thing, it will, eventually, fade into oblivion, as have previous versions of G. What will be the sexy, electrifying, fireworks-generating part is what it will enable. And carriers need to promote that, not 5G.