Talk to any telco, and they’ll tell you that 5G is the future. The latest wireless standard for mobile networks, 5G is designed to deliver much higher data speeds, at much lower latency, than its predecessors – ideal for supporting the burgeoning demand witnessed for augmented and virtual reality applications, ultra-fast broadband and a cornucopia of digital manufacturing and drone technologies.
And yet, for all the marketing budget telcos have thrown at promoting 5G, its rollout has so far proven disappointing. Anecdotal evidence suggests that consumers have yet to see any benefits from the new network standard. One user told BBC News that he had expected 5G to be “incredibly fast across the country,” only to find it no faster or more reliable than 4G. That sentiment extends across the UK, with a survey by Uswitch finding that only 17% of respondents could access a 5G signal while in the countryside.
“After the promise of 5G delivering ultrafast speeds to our mobiles, it’s no wonder that many consumers still don’t understand what the fuss is about when compared to their everyday experiences,” said Uswitch telecoms expert Ernest Doku, before adding that such kinks were to be expected in a standard that’s still only three years old. Even so, other problems, including slow rollout and low uptake among businesses, have led some to suggest that 5G could be the last network standard upgrade for a while – and hobble the prospects for its as-yet theoretical successor, 6G.
99 (5G) problems
5G isn’t just a problem among consumers. Digital manufacturing and digital-twin technology, which have been posed as the main enterprise applications that will use 5G, have seen even less uptake across Europe and North America, says Rahim Tafazolli, professor of electronic engineering at the University of Surrey. The problem, explains Tafazolli, relates to the inability of companies to forge meaningful relationships with telcos.
“When you talk to mobile operators, they know the business, they know what it means and they know how to deploy and how to maintain,” he says. Left on their own, vertical industries can dream big when it comes to 5G applications, but remain largely unable to implement these solutions at scale. “That’s why there’s a little bit of hesitancy,” says Tafazolli.
On the consumer side, there’s more of a hype problem to contend with, argues Ian Fogg, vice president of analysis for OpenSignal. Vendors from the mobile industry set expectations too high for the new network standard, explains Fogg, which has naturally resulted in some disappointment. But on the global scale, he says, the user experience of the earliest standard of 5G is still far better than its predecessor.
What’s more, adds Fogg, coverage and signal quality will inevitably improve. “We’re still in the early part of the 5G era – typically, one of these generations lasts about ten years,” he says. Every two to three years, a body called the 3GPP – the mobile broadband standard partnership – creates new mobile broadband sub-standards, improving the capabilities on both devices and the network. As such, says Fogg, “today’s 4G experience is different to the one we had when it launched back in 2010.”
To date, four standards have been released for 5G. Fogg says that most mobile end-users are using one called Release 15. Even though it’s the earliest standard for the fifth generation of mobile broadband standards, the average download speeds of users are 4.8 times faster than the average download speeds on 4G. Upload speeds are twice as fast, and video has a 36% bit rate saving.
Why, then, are consumers so disappointed? Most of the perceived 5G problems, explains Fogg, have to do with telco deployment strategies. “When a new technology comes out, the mobile operators will want to deploy where they have the most users and where there’s the most demand, “he says. “That inevitably starts out being in urban areas, particularly if you think about congestion on mobile networks, which is typically a big problem in urban centres.” Such is the case in the UK: EE’s 5G network, for example, is the only one to cover more than half of the population.
“When 4G launched in the UK, it was similar,” continues Fogg, in that it was rarely picked up at first in rural areas. Now, he says, it’s fairly common to get a 4G signal in the back fields of Yorkshire and Devon, “and that’s just because we’re further down that cycle”.
In some senses, 5G is already being upstaged by 6G. Expected to launch commercially in 2030, analysts and academics agree that it’s likely to be a noticeable improvement on the fifth-generation standard. Indeed, Tafazolli is ecstatic when he explains what his research centre is working on for 6G, focusing specifically on multisensory communication. ”What we mean by that is to bring noise, light, smell, taste and other things into communication,” explains Tafazolli. “We are turning science fiction into science fact.”
But with 5G still in its infancy, one analyst believes that the mobile industry needs to dampen down the hype surrounding its successor network standard.
“There needs to be a reality check,” says Paolo Pescatore, an analyst at PP Foresight. “6G should not be fast-tracked. You need to have testing, you need to have the research and you need to gather consensus from a wide range of stakeholders across the mobile industry, and beyond, to understand what it should look like and how it can be integrated into backward technologies and spectrum.”
But he’s also clear that nobody in the industry should be pushing for a 6G launch in five years. “We haven’t got to the point of the mass rollout of 5G,” he says. “If you’re someone with a smartphone or a business offering devices to its workforce, or a business with a factory… I would almost just ignore 6G at this point,” says Fogg. “It’s too far off.”
In the meantime, says the analyst, consumers and businesses should expect the challenges surrounding 5G’s rollout to diminish and for signal quality to improve. In short, there’s more hope for the network standard than many people assume. “It’s already better than 4G,” says Fogg. “It’s going to get much better and I’d be more focused on that nearer-term innovation path of what’s going to happen over the next five years.”