By William Webb
The expectation around 5G surpasses all previous generations. We are told it will herald a digital utopia with services beyond our dreams and gigabit data rates. But that is not how things appear to be working out. Instead, 5G may just be a minor upgrade to 4G networks, performed by increasingly cash-strapped mobile operators. For better services consumers may look to Wi-Fi and to alternative providers. Rather than delivering the crowning achievement of 40 years of mobile success, 5G may be the first indication that its best days are past.
Ten years ago the iPhone was introduced, bringing about the most dramatic change in the use of telecommunications ever seen. Since then there has not been much technological change but data usage, app usage and new business models have grown astoundingly.
Each generation of mobile phone technology tends to occur on a ten-yearly cycle and we are now contemplating 5G. So a key question is whether this trend will continue for the next ten years. Will we see another hundred-fold increase in data usage, ever more apps and more dramatic changes in the way we live our lives, or was this a one-off change that has now mostly run its course? Or will other factors such as coverage become more important?
5G is predicated on assuming the data usage trend will continue, and will even accelerate, and that latency will also become more critical. It broadly aims to deliver even more capacity and even faster speeds than 4G. To many this feels right – it is hard to remember a time when things were not growing fast. This future would see widespread use of virtual and augmented reality, autonomous cars that need low-latency Gbit connectivity, body-cams, ubiquitous Internet of Things (IoT) and many things we cannot currently imagine. It would be delivered through the current industry structure of fixed operators, mobile network operators (MNOs) and large manufacturers. In such a future, the key issues might include privacy, security, ensuring equal access for all and more broadly helping those left behind by rapid societal change.
But nothing can grow forever and cold, hard logic suggests we may be at peak growth now, with the rate of growth falling and demand levelling out perhaps by 2027.1 This alternative future has us reaching a point where we do not have the time to watch any more video downloads and find VR a minority occupation restricted to the home. IoT usage continues to emerge slowly and needs little bandwidth. MNOs do not invest because there is no likelihood of increased revenues. But ubiquitous connectivity becomes ever-more important and to achieve it we will get much better at using multiple networks. Google’s Project Fi pointed the way to a future where Wi-Fi is the first choice for connectivity, with cellular used as back-up when needed. Wi-Fi would increasingly provide coverage in buildings, on trains and in dense areas with voice calls taking place using IP-based solutions such as WhatsApp. Not only would this keep costs down and improve not-spots, it would also herald a shake-up in industry structure with operators becoming more like wholesale providers. Users would be able to take greater control: apps might allow them to discover the best mobile operator and Wi-Fi networks for their daily lives and to tailor connectivity packages to suit, in turn spurring a range of connectivity providers to deliver better solutions. The key implications would be seen first in the industry structure, with more third-party service providers, blurred boundaries between fixed and mobile, new types of competition and an urgent need for reformed regulation.
So which future transpires?
About the Author
Professor William Webb provides technical and strategic consultancy across the wireless communications space. His activities include advising CEOs, Government Ministers, and regulatory bodies. William is also the part-time CEO of the Weightless SIG, the standards body developing a new global M2M technology and was President of the IET – Europe’s largest Professional Engineering body during 14/15. He is also a Visiting Professor at multiple universities and a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, the IEEE and the IET.
1. William Webb, 2016, “The 5G Myth”, Amazon.
2. See http://transition.fcc.gov/Daily_Releases/Daily_Business/2017/db0907/DOC-346595A1.pdf