Is 5G a Schrödinger's cat experiment?

During the last few years, 5G has become part of everyday conversation for those in the telecom and IT industries. No matter how much has been said and how many studies have been done on this new technology and its potential (and how much it is needed) to support the future of our societies, there is still a level of skepticism and questioning regarding why and when one should open the “5G box” and see what’s inside it. This reminds me of Schrödinger's cat experiment.

Solution Marketing Manager 5G Core

Solution Marketing Manager 5G Core

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For many years, scientists where intrigued by the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. “According to the Copenhagen interpretation, physical systems generally do not have definite properties prior to being measured, and quantum mechanics can only predict the probabilities that measurements will produce certain results. The act of measurement affects the system, causing the set of probabilities to reduce to only one of the possible values immediately after the measurement. This feature is known as wave function collapse.” (source: Wikipedia)

The Schrödinger experiment

It is not very easy to visualize the issue, so in 1935 an Austrian physicist called Erwin Schrödinger proposed a thought experiment that is today known as Schrödinger's cat experiment. He presented a scenario in which a cat is put inside a sealed box with a flask of poison, a hammer, and a radioactive source. Inside the box, a radioactivity monitor (gauge) would also be placed and, if radioactivity was detected, the flask would be shattered by the hammer releasing the poisonous substance and killing the cat. The paradox implies that the cat can be simultaneously alive and dead and the only way to know if the cat is alive or dead is to open the box. This poses the question of when exactly the superposition ends and the reality collapses into one possibility or the other.

I am not a scientist and my limited knowledge in quantum physics, acquired during my years at an engineering university, is long gone from my brain. But when I read the description of the experiment, I thought about another possibility which would be the cat shattering the flask of poison.

What has this to do with telecom?

But since I work in the telecom business and my daily discussions are related to the topic of 5G, why am I talking about the cat-in-a-box experiment?

I guess that what intrigues me most in this experiment and makes me connect it to 5G is the paradox, and all the years physicists spent discussing the different possibilities—just like we are doing with 5G now.

After years of discussions on the different possibilities with 5G, I decided to translate the Schrödinger's cat experiment into the “5G experiment.” For that, we need to rename the elements:

  1. sealed box = 5G technology
  2. cat = operators
  3. cat’s state of life = revenue (or the operators' business size)*
  4. flask = use cases
  5. gauge = industry triggers

*In our industry, we have no intention to kill the cat so for us it’s a matter of having healthier cats, with new revenues flooding the accounts, versus cats struggling to keep the status quo.

Do you or don't you need to get started with 5G now?

The most frequent discussion around 5G we have with operators today is why they should care about 5G and when to start with 5G. Many operators (the cats) are looking at 5G from inside the box, and they are sitting there wondering when the 5G use cases will come. They are waiting for the industry triggers (gauge) to release the use cases (flask) that will have an impact on their revenue (state of the cat’s life). And as long as these triggers do not happen, the world looks at the 5G technology box and wonders how the cat inside the box is doing.

But how wise is this approach? Well, it depends on where you want to be in the 5G benchmark in your market.

It is quite well known at this point that 5G will not come for free and the transformation of networks is more complex and time-demanding than some might think. There are important building blocks to should be in place to be able to offer new, advanced 5G use cases. Although some of these building blocks will differ depending on the complexity of the use case, others such as NFV, network slicing, and CI/CD form the foundation of most future industry use cases.

Technology-wise the issues are minor, because most of these new technologies, when applied on existing 4G core networks, may be enough to provide quite advanced use cases to satisfy the digitalization of the industry in 2018 and 2019.

And the evolution to more-advanced 5G technologies and use cases can be planned in a step-wise approach following business needs.

The major barriers will be the changes in processes and business models within operator companies. The business and cultural changes that will hit our industry in the coming years can be the real divisors that will separate the winners and losers in this race.

Another reflection on the cat experiment I mentioned earlier is the fact that the cat could affect the result of the experiment if it hits and breaks the flask before the gauge is activated. Operators that are taking the lead in the 5G race are playing the active-cat role and not waiting for the industry to come to then asking for use cases. They are one step ahead by preparing their networks and offering and testing new use cases before a “real, explicit need” from the outside comes. Yes, they are taking the risk, but it is a calculated risk in line with their market ambitions because, sooner or later, these operators will be the ones to benefit most. By trying the new technologies, and even impacting their development, they are already adapting their processes, organizations, and networks ahead of time and they are prepared to seize 5G opportunities as they appear.

In this year's 5G World Congress, operators such as Swisscom and Three UK urged the industry to stop waiting for a killer business case before adopting 5G. Their message was that 5G is happening and the industry should just embrace it as early as possible. These are the cats that decide to break the flask themselves to find ways to increase their revenues and improve their bottom lines.

Unlike the Schrödinger's cat experiment, in our industry case, when we open up the “5G box”, we may see the same cat from before or we may discover that the cat has had kittens.

Luckily, the world of science and technology have progressed quite significantly since the times of Erwin Schrödinger ,and today there are better prediction and measurement models that do not require us to confine a cat (or another animal) in a deadly environment to be able to test technologies and models (at least not in the telecom business). But the paradox is still valid.

Do you dare break the flask? Or will you sit and wait for the gauge (industry triggers) to initiate?

Guidelines for what to do

To know more about the value proposition of 5G and how to balance network investment to shorten time to revenue, watch this video interview from TelecomTV with Peo Lehto (Head of Packet Core, Ericsson), Fredrik Engströmer (Head of Marketing 5G CORE, Ericsson), and Bryan Madden (Director of Marketing, Network Platforms Group, Intel Corporation).

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