By now you’ve probably heard about this next generation of cellular connectivity thing known as 5G. Nationwide advertising campaigns tout the ability to play multiplayer games on the move and logos are already changing on our phones. You might even think you have it via the 5G (GHz) channel on your WiFi router. Mobile operators began announcing launches of one form of 5G service or another beginning late last year and are continuing through 2019. Leading academics and engineers have already moved on and started talking about 6G and 7G. The 5G era is signed, sealed and delivered, right?
Quite the opposite. Despite the headlines and marketing, I recently heard one player in the 5G ecosystem theorize that perhaps 2019, instead of being the start of the 5G era, is really more like “T-minus- 1” to the 5G era. While the technology has been in development for years, no matter how you measure it, the road to 5G is really just beginning.
5G: What’s the Big Deal?
Taken strictly on its own merits, 5G is a revolutionary technology, which will bring up to a 100x increase in data rates (depending on which spectrum is utilized), help network latency approach if not surpass 1 millisecond and provide the ability to simultaneously connect millions of devices. 5G involves not just how devices connect over the air with cell towers, but also how the data passes through the entire network.
Those improved data speeds will allow one to download an HD movie in less than 10 seconds, versus the 3-5 minutes it takes with existing LTE service. The latency improvements will eliminate the visual lag seen in today’s AR/VR set-ups when the user moves. All impressive developments. And despite those massive leaps, it simply scratches the surface of what 5G will be able to do. Where 4G was heavily focused on the consumer and improving connectivity for data use in a somewhat familiar form factor—the phone handset, 5G’s impact is expected to be realized more prominently in the business space as an enabler of other technologies, such as artificial intelligence, edge computing and virtualized networks.
5G Sounds Great! Where do I sign up?
So what are we to take away from the constant barrage of 5G ‘firsts’ and bluster about the technology supporting “all the things we haven’t imagined yet”. 5G has launched. People can call their wireless operator and sign up now, right?
The reality is that the runway to 5G still has way to go.
Strictly from a coverage standpoint, there will be a wait before 5G reaches the masses. In the U.S., early deployments of 5G are only covering small sections of cities in their launches. This is large part due to current spectrum holdings of many operators, and technical nuances around how that spectrum transmits, along with the massive infrastructure costs associated with building out that coverage. And finally, while 5G has performed well across a myriad of lab tests, releasing it unto the real-world brings about a lot of learning needed to optimize coverage. At the recent Brooklyn 5G Summit, one speaker pointed out survey results indicating that many wireless operators believe it will take 4-5 years before they will cover 75% of their current subscribers with a 5G signal. A U.S. couple operators are promising nationwide deployment of 5G in 2020, but the low-band spectrum utilized for those deployments is not capable of the headline-grabbing 1GBPS speeds associated with 5G. As a result, IDC forecasts that by 2023, 5G mobile subscribers will only account for slightly more than 25% of total wireless subscribers.
Beyond coverage, 5G is very much still in development. Arguably, the 5G that is being deployed today in many markets is only “half” 5G, with the radio communications using 5G specs, but traffic is still traversing the LTE network core. For technical reasons, the ‘network’ part of 5G won’t begin to emerge in 2020. Most futuristic use cases for 5G are contingent on a full end-to-end 5G network being available. Once that occurs—sometime post-2020—and the use case specifications are refined in the the 3GPP’s Release 16, there will be a large acceleration of innovation developing 5G beyond our current thinking of is possible.
3 ‘P’s to Preparing for 5G
After all that ‘hurry up and wait’ stuff, what should companies be doing to position themselves to take advantage of 5G when it arrives on their doorstep? Companies can begin the preparation process for 5G by looking at three Ps:
Getting the most out of 5G for business involves more than putting a 5G-enabled handset in employees’ hands. With connectivity no longer being an end unto itself, but a means to provide a mobility element to historically static business operations, companies must begin to think about connectivity as a strategic resource. With the burgeoning number of connectivity bands – wired, 5G, LTE, WiFi, LPWAN – it is no longer one-size-fits-all. Companies and operators should think holistically about what connectivity can do and what components of their operations and work flows could benefit from being mobilized. That ‘mobility inventory’ will provide a good roadmap to deploying connectivity of all types across the business and ensure that mobile DX initiatives are built-out in a cost-effective manner that can be seamlessly integrated to maximize synergies.
The complexity of the new use cases enabled by 5G means that few companies will be able to conceive, develop and deploy 5G solutions entirely in-house. The fact of the matter is, most companies lack the technical expertise or IT focus to integrate connectivity with the ancillary technologies (artificial intelligence, mobile edge, etc.) needed to realize bespoke 5G use cases. Most mobile operators won’t have familiarity with the nuances of industry verticals’ business processes to offer up scalable solutions without customer input. And in many countries, the question of spectrum ownership essentially mandates that customers and equipment OEMs partner with mobile operators.
If there is one key takeaway to offer above all others, it is that of patience. That may seem counterintuitive when we hearing everyday about arrival of the 5G era. However, if you look behind the Ozian curtain of marketing headlines, one senses that many operators are channeling that old John Wooden Pyramid of Success quote: “Be quick…but don’t hurry.” Despite headlines heralding each 5G “first”, the pace of deployment, partnership development and use case creation is much more deliberate. Much of the innovation that 5G will enable won’t happen until coverage is built out and full end-to-end networks are accessible to innovators operating outside the traditional purview of mobile operators. There also needs to be some maturing in the device space to bring new 5G-enabled form factors to life.
Companies that approach 5G from the foundation of these three Ps will better be able to manage the hype and expectations of what 5G can do for their business and be well on their way to integrating 5G into their DX initiatives in a pragmatic manner aligned with long-term strategic goals.
Learn more about 5G’s potential in IDC’s eBook, “The Future is 5G”: