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Is 5G over-hyped?

It probably is because we are so good at doing that in our industry. We start with over-promising and under-delivering and then in following years we fix it. So why would 5G be different?

Our admirable technology companies are telling us that 5G will be 100x faster than 4G and that it will have 50x lower latency. But my more independent technology colleagues tell me ‘it all depends’. I have no doubt that the quality of 5G will be up to standard. The vendors and operators have done a terrific job of getting us to where we are now and there is no reason to believe that this will be any different. However there are other variables that will affect the service.

In my view the promises above are, typically, the best possible case scenarios.

For example, it depends on what frequency bands are used – 6GHz, 28GHz, 27 GHZ. The higher the frequency the more fibre you need closer to the user in order to deliver those higher speeds. Currently less than 50% of mobile towers are connected to fibre, and the rollout of fibre can’t keep up with the rapid deployment of mobile broadband. 5G means more mobile towers so it is unlikely that all of these towers will be linked to fibre in the near future.

In relation to latency issues, here the ‘it all depends’ includes distances involved between network elements and also the actual quality and capabilities of the devices connected to the network (be aware of the blame game between network operators and device vendors).

Other issues that can affect the performance of 5G (but are not unique to it) includes the number of users connected to the same cell, the actual applications used, whether it is used in a mobile situation as the speed of moving will have an effect, and, last but not least, weather conditions. All of this will need to be considered when selecting the right infrastructure for the right application.

Others that are looking at M2M and are shopping around have also been told by their mobile operators that their LTE networks (with a range of different flavours) will become commercially attractive for certain M2M applications by early 2017. So, from a mobile network perspective, over the next five years or so LTE will take an important share of this market and unless these services are migrated to 5G at no extra cost and at a time when these networks are stable enough for such application, 5G will take a back seat.

So, yes, in theory 5G can deliver on those promises but better to check out if that will be the case in the particular 5G services that your operator provides you with. And also check the backhaul issue. Is there fibre or enough capacity in the microwave backhaul network to support that particular application?

On the positive side – something we have been talking about for a long time – 5G will drive fibre deeper and deeper into the network and that will also benefit the business model for FttH.

Another promise: the vendors let us believe is that 5G is ideal for M2M applications (machine-to-machine or IoT internet of things) as it will allow for 100x the number of devices to be connected to such a network. That might be true, but what about the affordability? There is no indication that prices will match the current costs of linking IoT devices to LPWS (low-powered wireless networks), 2G networks, mesh networks. The reality of IoT or M2M networks is that the sensors and devices connected to such networks don’t change for a decade or more, so it is not anticipated that there will be a rush to migration by those operating such applications at the moment. Furthermore 5G is a new technology and very few M2M users would want to be the guinea pigs for this.

Also, to make 5G cost-effective significant investments will be required in the network by the network operator in order to optimise the network, so that application devices (radio modules) need less technology and are therefore competitively priced against the technology used in the devices employed on other M2M networks.

For starters, I am sure there will be some niche market applications that will be ideally suited for 5G and those who want to operate this will be willing to pay a premium for the use of the 5G networks. And over time – depending on how all of the other alternative infrastructure develops – there will also be a market for 5G M2M and IoT applications.

In the meantime expect a great deal of hype. There will be 4 ½ G and early 5G offerings but there will also be standards and compatibility issues. It will miraculously support driverless cars (imagine the variability of problems when the car suddenly stops); it will spur robotics and virtual reality; yes, it will allow pigs to fly; and it will make your perfect cup of coffee :-).

Paul Budde