Will the Real 5G Please Stand Up

Just as 5G shifted into second gear with a bona fide standard to unify the industry, the mobile networking sector appears to have suffered something of a crisis of confidence.

All of a sudden some doubts appear to be surfacing: Is 5G any different from 4G? Will anyone need 5G to run their businesses or enhance their daily lives? Will it cost too much and are there any return-on-investment or business models that can be used to make the case for network upgrades and strategic shifts?

These are all perfectly reasonable questions that deserve to be answered. But this seems like a strange time for self-doubt: We are fast approaching some of the first 5G service launches and many (though not all) network operators have been laying the foundations for 5G for some time.

The problem here is that, unlike at any time before, the introduction of next-generation wireless services is not just going to change the mobile/communications industry: It's going to change every industry, all verticals. The potential impact of 5G capabilities is radical in a way that 4G hasn't been and can't be, because 5G is not just a next-generation wireless standard that will bring faster smartphone connections – it's an ICT puzzle with many essential and interlocking pieces that individually will impact the communications sector and, together, shape the future of industrial operations.

That sounds great, right? So why is that a problem?

Because such potential has been recognized in the broader business world – by industry leaders, regulators and politicians. And that, in my view, is where the problem lies. 5G is now being perceived as some sort of silver bullet that, almost overnight, will transform the fortunes of entire economies and create new world leaders. Connect everyone in the world? 5G will do that. Introduce widespread automation that will cut costs and drive operational efficiencies and profitability? 5G will do that. Boost GDP? Come on down, 5G.

Such perceptions are hard, if not impossible, to shift and could lead to extreme expectations from investors, policy-makers and other decision-makers. A chief concern is that 5G spectrum prices might be inflated as a result of such expectations, and we don't need a repeat of the crippling impact that certain 3G auctions had on mobile operators.

And the last thing anyone needs is for expectations to spiral out of control, massively exceed what is genuinely possible, and create tensions when unity is needed. We don't need anyone thinking that 5G will be just a replacement for 4G. We don't want 5G to become a toxic term, one associated with a failure to deliver. Not when it offers so much real potential – not when we've finally reached a point of having a unified standard unencumbered by regional schisms.

So what is needed is for the real 5G to stand up, be seen by all those decision-makers and influencers, and create a realistic set of expectations and perceptions. That wouldn't be a climbdown: The real 5G, the one comprising all of those puzzle pieces – high-capacity data transport backbones, widespread fiber access deployments, software-defined distributed cloud architectures, self-learning analytics systems, to name just a few – is, after all, going to have a significant global impact. But not in 2019 or 2020, even though the first services based on 5G access technology will then be up and running. Or even shortly after that.

This is a long journey that will take time, money, effort, insight and the ability to shift course and recalibrate as lessons are learned. And it's not a big bang process – it's a gradual shift, underpinned by the tremendous capabilities of enhanced 4G networks that can support advanced, useful and worthy services.   

But in time, it's hard to see how the collective 5G puzzle parts won't dramatically impact society and usher in a new industrial age. I think it's very fair to say that we can't predict exactly what 5G will enable – the innovators will work their magic once the platform is available – but what we know already about one single capability, ultra-low latency network is enough to envisage how industrial IoT and remote healthcare could revolutionize the way we live and work.

And within the communications industry's four walls, the potential reductions in cost-per-bit that 5G architectures could enable are compelling for the spreadsheet junkies.

But it's going to be tough, of course. Making the case is one thing – gaining access to the required investments and executing against business plans is another. No one can do this alone – a collective mindset and collaboration will be essential and that needs to be built on trust (and that's something you can't buy).  

Part of that collective effort needs to be focused on ensuring that the real, pragmatic-yet-exciting 5G commands the limelight and consigns the hype-fuelled silver-bullet brigade and the naysayers to the shadows.

— Ray Le Maistre, Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading