Networking

5G: Time to get real about what it will be used for

We all know the old saw about pushing a strand of spaghetti uphill, and I’ve got to wonder whether that’s what we’re now doing with 5G. 

First, 5G is going to happen because of the orderly process of modernizing wireless networks.  It doesn’t need “justifying”. The problem is that vendors want 5G to be revolutionary and transformational, rather than orderly. Second, that need to seem revolutionary has pushed 5G stories to the boundaries of sensibility.

Take the “5G is a lot faster” story.  I have 5G on one phone and 4G on another, from the same operator.  I couldn’t see any difference between the two in anything I did. I don’t pay anything extra for 5G, though, so I’m perfectly fine with that, but it does mean that I’m not much of a revenue hope for the operators, and neither are others like me.  What phones are capable of doing, and what users are interested in doing with them, doesn’t challenge most 4G delivery, much less justify 5G.

OK, how about some other 5G features. One suggestion is that businesses will want to pay more for 5G to get their very own network slice, or maybe their own private 5G network. Network slicing is a kind of multi-tenant capability for wireless networks, a strategy to separate business users from the madding 5G crowd.  Yes, it could provide more security, but check with your operators to find out just where you can expect to use one of those slices. Or maybe don’t bother; it may take years for slices to be pervasive, and only then if operators take a leap of faith and invest to offer them (AT&T and Verizon both hedged on implementation of the 5G specifications for slicing).  Eventually, this could be a limited opportunity, but not anytime soon.

Private 5G? Has your company set aside funding for spectrum auctions? You’re bidding against big telcos who have spent billions, but think big. Anyway, you could use public spectrum or shared spectrum, right? Of course, you’d still need to build your own network, including towers and radios, wherever you expect to use that spectrum. Maybe the billions for spectrum wasn’t the big financial issue after all. Once you’ve deployed, everything will be great as long as nobody else on the spectrum plays dirty. Sell that to the CFO. There are companies that could justify private 5G, but it’s not a mainstream opportunity.

Then there’s IoT. In pure marketing terms, it makes sense to turn devices into cellular customers when you start depleting the market among humans, but do we really think people or companies are going to pay for sensor connection via 5G on a large scale, when we already connect sensors in other ways (like Wi-Fi) for free? How many “things” have we managed to “internet” without 5G, and why wouldn’t those old ways continue to work, without adding 5G “thing-plans” to “family plans?”

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.


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