As we get closer and closer to the deployment of ‘5G’ services, it is worth taking a moment to see if we really understand what we mean when we say ‘5G.’ Mostly because I don’t think we have agreement across the industry on the definition, and that could spell trouble for consumerization of 5G services.
At the Mobile World Congress 2018 conference in Barcelona, Spain, I moderated a panel discussion called “Reality Check: Will 5G live up to its promises?” It included representatives from Nokia, Samsung and the 5GIC, as well as database vendor VoltDB and security vendor Evolved Intelligence.
Before addressing if 5G would live up to its promises, I thought it prudent to see if there was an agreement on what 5G is, so the future promises were at least grounded on the same premise.
The responses to both questions were interesting. Let’s start with what the panelists came up with as ‘What is 5G’ as well as responses from some additional people I surveyed in the industry:
Henri Tervonen, CTO and head of research and development, Mobile Networks at Nokia positions 5G as an “end-to-end solution that is a complete architecture.” This is an interesting concept as LTE started down the path of not just being a radio interface update but changing out the core of the network to one that is IP-based. But at the heart of the standards, LTE is still a radio.
Damiano Coletti, VP of strategy and marketing at Airspan, suggests: “Rather than ask what is 5G, perhaps it is better to ask what will 5G do? It will enable use cases like enhanced mobile broadband, ultra-reliable low latency communications, and massive IoT [Internet of Things]. However, most importantly it will forever shift the economics and business models of how networks are deployed.”
Stuart Revell, managing director at RTACS and part of the 5G Innovation Centre, said that 5G encapsulates the “user, new radio, core, inter-networking, and the architecture which is unique to 5G.”
Affirmed Networks Chief Architect Ron Parker said: “5G is a set of new and enhanced use cases centered around scale, reliability, latency, and location awareness. A new radio modulation scheme, standardized network slicing, and a cloud native transformation of the core network architecture.”
Landon Garner, CMO at antenna vendor Taoglas said: “5G is the promise of seamless connectivity. It’s clearly a much more comprehensive and broad technology than previous generations [2G, 3G, 4G], which makes it so hard to define. Meaning that today, 5G is anything to anyone.”
Dan Warren, Head of 5G at Samsung noted: “5G really is 5GNR [New Radio] as the other parts often talked about — spectrum, NFV/SDN [network functions virtualization/software-defined networking], network slicing — are all non-5G specific.”
What I like about Warren’s definition is that it simplifies 5G into something easily definable, tangible, and real. Not that this invalidates the other definitions, but when it comes to what service providers deliver as a service, and what customers actually buy, it has to be something tangible or else the label becomes meaningless.
What is the Minimum it Takes to be 5G?
This is where the use of 5GNR as the defining feature really makes sense. Regardless of deployment in a non-standalone (NSA) network (for example, with a 4G core network), or a fixed-wireless application (as some early applications will be) the radio defines the technology delivering the service.
Do Consumers Want 5G?
Not having a clear definition of 5G that consumers understand, could hinder adoption. A question I posed to the audience (approximately 550 people) at the MWC panel raises a potential concern for the quick adoption of 5G services. When the audience was asked who is looking forward to buying a 5G access point this year, not a single hand went up. When asked how many would be early adopters of 5G smartphones, less than 10 percent raised their hands.
This is in stark contrast to a recent survey from Qualcomm and Nokia, which asked 6,000 participants from the U.S., China, U.K., France, Germany, and Finland to weigh in on their mobile pain points and their take on 5G. It is important to separate ‘wireless’ from ‘5G’ in the results.
Consumers want “better wireless connectivity and are poised to adopt 5G” (these two points are not surprising) and are “willing to pay more for a 5G device — up to $50 more.” Each new mobile technology introduction (3G, 4G) has seen an accompanying bump in average revenue per user even if only temporarily — but this is where the first mover clearly has benefits.
And let’s not forget, in the early days of 4G the majority of consumers didn’t really know what 4G was, and nearly 75 percent of people with an iPhone4 assumed it was a 4G device. Thus, I’m wary of consumers’ understanding and attitudes when it comes to technology.
Of those surveyed in the Qualcomm and Nokia study, more than 86 percent said faster connectivity is a priority for their next smartphone, something 5G will easily address. When asked if that next smartphone will indeed support 5G, about half said they see themselves as early adopters of the technology.
Once 5G rolls out, about 50 percent said they would subscribe to an unlimited data plan, which isn’t surprising considering the kinds of experiences 5G is equipped to handle. But again, consumers are incredibly price-sensitive, thus all of this willingness to pay perhaps needs to be taken with a grain of salt.
What are people most looking forward to with 5G? Topping the list of wants is the promise of never again needing to log onto public WiFi. Others include faster browsing, faster downloads, better quality video calls, UHD and 360-degree video steaming, and the ability to have instant cloud access.
Other than not having to log into WiFi again (Passpoint folks – are you listening?), many of these are the same as the 4G wish lists. We will have to see if pricing and service availability match with user expectations and the strength of their wallets.