At the risk of aging myself, I can say that I grew up in the first generation of personal computers, writes Peter Jarich, Head of GSMA Intelligence. That meant I spent a good amount of time begging my parents for a computer every Christmas and birthday. The question I always got in return was “what will you do with it?” It was a fair question; the PC software ecosystem was still in its infancy and despite all the marketing, it wasn’t clear how much potential was there – or how I’d really take advantage of that potential.
Today, the same dynamic is playing out with 5G.
5G is finally here: we had some initial launches last year and many more are planned for this year. Operators and vendors have been eagerly waiting for it. Spectrum allocations are taking place and investments in the new networks is ramping up. Mobile operators across the world are set to invest $480 billion (capex) between 2018 and 2020 – more than half of this expenditure due to occur in markets expected to have launched 5G by 2020. As 5G grows to more than 100 markets by 2025, investment levels will increase too.
5G Uses: “Faster Data” (for What?)
The marketing around 5G promises great things. And yet it’s not quite clear what it will be used for and what novel applications it will deliver that we couldn’t do before it arrived. When asked, consumers tell us what they expect from 5G: 54% said they are looking forward to faster mobile data.
But that still begs the question of what they will do with it.
Here, our primary research isn’t much help. Only 25% of consumers said they expect 5G to bring innovative new services. So what will it bring? Just a more efficient way to download high-def video? Given the time and money that will be spent on rolling out 5G, this would be pretty disappointing.
The good news is that rolling out 5G may not be as difficult as you might think. Spectrum needs to be allocated, but that’s under way.
New base station and core network technologies will be needed, but much of today’s infrastructure can be upgraded to support 5G. New site locations will need to be secured, particularly where operators are using high-frequency 5G spectrum that doesn’t offer great range. But, in many cases, operators will be using spectrum that – combined with new antenna technologies – can match today’s 4G coverage.
This doesn’t mean that deploying 5G will be easy. National regulators need to ensure sufficient spectrum is available at costs that allow operators to build their networks. And, regardless of the spectrum used, we’ll need plenty of new site locations in order to simply keep up with data demands. Still, we generally have an idea of how this will proceed. And on the use case front? Does the industry have any ideas? Will the 5G investments be recouped? This year’s MWC gave some clear indications.
First, a reminder: when 4G launched, we didn’t know everything it would be used for. We knew it would deliver faster speeds, but it ultimately delivered capabilities that would go on to drive new social, video and IoT use cases. We should expect the same of 5G. Thanks to high bandwidth and low latency, 5G will add new network capabilities to provide real-time or near-real-time services.
Autonomous cars, remote surgery and immersive gaming will require sub-second decisions that current 4G networks are not able to provide.
For example, low latency connectivity will enable vehicles and other machines to respond immediately to changes in their surroundings, supporting the rollout of self-driving cars, drones and robots while enabling an array of smart city applications, such as intelligent traffic management.
But that’s all in the future. If MWC provided any insights into early 5G use cases, two stood out: AR/VR and gaming. Sony, Intel and Nokia brought us an interactive Spiderman experience. AT&T, Intel and Ericsson brought us Batman. Sprint linked its 5G launch to cloud-based gaming from Hatch. Deutsche Telecom pack its booth with people eager to experience the mixed-reality ‘Codename: Neon’ experience from Niantic, the people who brought us Pokémon GO.
Was this all powered by 5G? No. Does it signal a very real focus from operators and vendors as they look to engage consumers? Yes. And does it play directly into 5G’s strengths in terms of the low latency, high bandwidth and enabling technologies like edge computing (for keeping latencies low, and potentially offloading processing from devices). Yes.
In full disclosure, the PC I eventually got for my birthday many years ago never got much use; its capabilities were limited and I didn’t have the vision to see what it could become. 5G’s capabilities are far from limited. In the long-term, there’s no telling what it will enable. In the near-term, as networks and devices come to market over the next year, 5G’s speed will be a likely marketing highlight, but to the question of “what will people do with it” it looks like we’re in for some fun AR/VR and gaming experiences.