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Q&A: 5G, a revolutionary future or hyped fanfare?

Wed 12 Jun 2019
FYI, this story is more than a year old

Since its first major unveiling at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics, 5G’s touted exceptional bandwidth, low latency and high data speeds are set to revolutionise our world. With governments and service providers around the world racing to roll out 5G networks in their countries, Opensignal VP Ian Fogg debunks the myths around 5G.

1. What is the hype around 5G’s implementation?

The two initial main markets for 5G which are launching this year are hyped but – perhaps surprisingly for those tracking smartphone 5G launches – by no means as much as other 5G for the Internet of Things.

In 2019, the two main uses for 5G are for improving smartphone users’ mobile network experience through much faster speeds, often called enhanced mobile broadband. And, to use 5G to offer a fixed wireless broadband service in areas poorly served by existing fixed broadband technologies. Both of these market opportunities are supported by the current version of the 5G standards.

The many other potential markets for 5G technology are even more hyped than the use for smartphones and fixed wireless, including industrial automation, smart cities, autonomous driving, and other Internet of Things opportunities. These areas will be supported by upcoming versions of the 5G standard.

2. With many Communications Service Providers (CSPs) still trying to get ROI on 4G investment, how realistic is the reality of 5G going mainstream in the next couple of years?

The 5G opportunity depends greatly on the country and the target market. If the 4G network is already congested and the real-world experience of smartphone users is slower than it should be at busy times of the day, there is clearly a greater need for the launch of 5G services on new spectrum bands to add capacity and improve the experience.

For many CSPs much of the 4G investment now is dual-use and will help 5G as well. For example, if an operator upgrades the backhaul connectivity to a site, it helps to deliver greater 4G speed now if the existing wireless spectrum is not too congested but will also help support 5G services deployed on a new spectrum in the years ahead. Similarly, the main network vendors have offerings which provide an upgrade path to 5G in time.

3. Realistically, is 5G viable for developing countries, many of whom are only just getting their 3G networks set up. Since many have said that 5G is an entirely new network architecture, can developing countries leapfrog to 5G, skipping the evolution of 3G to 4G?

It’s a timing challenge, not a question of whether 5G will benefit developing countries. In time 5G will be even more important for developing countries than it is in developed markets because a greater proportion of consumer and business users’ online time is spent connecting using wireless technologies. The lack of wired infrastructure makes mobile technologies more significant.

However, where 4G is not fully deployed yet, the greatest real-world benefit will likely come from 4G investments that can help all those consumers that already own a 4G device or who are in the process of upgrading from 3G. Today, 4G is more mature and affordable technology.  

4. 5G has been seen to accelerate digital transformation and the proliferation of smart cities. How much of this is true?

Smart cities are a longer-term opportunity for 5G because the most interesting use cases rely on upcoming versions of the 5G standard. Today, there are existing technologies such as NB-IoT or LTE-Cat-M which enable a faster time to market than 5G for IoT applications.

5. What are the particular shortcomings of 5G that could hinder its implementation/adoption?

5G will behave very differently across different spectrum bands. On mid-band like 3.5Ghs, it will likely deliver an evolutionary experience to existing 4G services with a broadly similar coverage pattern but only with more capacity and higher average real-world speeds.

But on millimetre-wave bands, as are being deployed in the US, 5G has very different characteristics to current mobile services. This wide variety of experience risks confusing consumers.

6. Given that most consumers find 4G fast enough, what are the practical and immediate benefits end users can expect from 5G?

On a good day, and at the right hour of the day, 4G may be good enough for many consumers.  However, there are plenty of locations and times of the day when consumers find problems with their current mobile services because speeds fluctuate wildly based on the level of usage. 

The real-world mobile network experience needs to be consistently reliable all of the time as well as in all places, and often today consumers suffer problems some of the time and across many locations.

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