5G is no panacea. It isn’t going to save us from ourselves and it won’t right the wrongs that have endured for decades.
Of all the problems holding us back, network technology barely deserves a mention. Faster speeds, greater capacity, and lower latency isn’t going to fix our health care system, send us all peeling off in autonomously driven vehicles, or somehow magically improve our woefully lopsided education system.
The telecom industry is more exciting than it’s been for years, and 5G is a big reason for that. But the collective aspirations of executives driving this leap in technology have taken things way too far. At last week’s Big 5G Event in Denver, I constantly heard proclamations that sent my eyeballs rolling upward.
When someone offered a dose of reality either on stage or in the halls of the event, it didn’t take long for them to wade back into the shallows. It’s safe to say that remote surgery is many years away, but that doesn’t mean 5G is going to immediately change how we gain access to doctors and reduce visits to the emergency room, as one speaker from a Tier 1 operator put it.
Sure, Lyft and Uber didn’t exist before 4G LTE networks took off, but the notion of ride-sharing wasn’t impossible to imagine back then as seemingly every telecom executive wants us to believe. Technology advances on multiple tracks and at different paces — sometimes these things happen in parallel, but one development does not necessarily lead to another.
What’s more, if ride-sharing, a deeply flawed and thus far unsustainable business, is the best example we can provide for what the future might hold, we’ve got bigger problems. Ride-sharing provides a wonderful convenience and it has laid waste the entrenched overpriced taxi industry, but these companies have yet to make a profit and their collective impact on society and the future of work is suspect.
While it’s a smooth, marketer-approved way to explain how 5G will create new conveniences, the nostalgic reference to ride-sharing oversimplifies how businesses gain mass appeal and the role wireless technology plays in fostering that growth.
Throughout the Big 5G Event, I asked people why so much emphasis is being placed on potential use cases that enter the realm of science fiction, and to a fault everyone justified the need to do so. When I think back to previous leaps in network technology I don’t recall hearing so many futuristic, tired, and oft-repeated use cases. I do remember hearing that 4G LTE had the potential to replace broadband at home, and well, look how that turned out.
Our problems and the challenges we face as a society are profound. 5G isn’t going to change that. Sure, it might help in small, albeit meaningful ways. But anything beyond that is a stretch. At its best, wireless technology is a utility and corresponding infrastructure that powers important applications and services. Many of those use cases would not work without mobile connectivity, but the relation between the two is reciprocal and not one-sided as network operators would like us to believe.
Almost every representative from a leading U.S. carrier has called 5G “truly” or “really” revolutionary. OK, but what are they going to say about 6G and 7G?
“If we are at this conference a few years from now and all 5G is for users is faster internet, we will have missed the ball,” Nicola Palmer, Verizon’s senior vice president of technology, said at the event.
I’m afraid Palmer and her colleagues are going to be disappointed with how this “revolution” turns out. It’s not just the ball. It’s the entire name of the game — faster, reliable, reasonably affordable connectivity.
While network operators are desperate to regain control of the narrative and place themselves at the center of innovation, the services they provide are merely a means to an end. We’d all laugh and roll our eyes if broadband providers tried to take credit for the rise of cloud computing or streaming media, right? What makes cellular any different?
Call it a dumb pipe or a “series of tubes,” as one late U.S. senator described the internet. Wireless networks are just that — a utility that lays the foundation for innovation in a mobile context.
Building and maintaining a secure, reliable, and pervasive cellular network is a feat and network operators should be proud of what they deliver. There’s no need to embellish their purpose. If someone builds a business or improves a stale industry or service using the connectivity that networks provide, all the better.
But it’s a pipe dream to suggest that 5G is going to quickly bring us on-demand health care, immersive and futuristic experiences in retail, or highways clogged with cars that have no steering wheel.
Replacing decent paying jobs with a “gig economy” that places much of the liability, responsibility, and overhead on the worker is a future we do not want to replicate at scale. If wireless networks are going to be used to disrupt the status quo and redistribute wealth, there are much more worthy beneficiaries than venture capitalists who can invest in unprofitable ventures like Uber with reckless abandon.
Technology is not the answer in and of itself. It is an enabler. Wireless networks are nothing more and nothing less. If you’re looking for cures to what ails us all, I encourage you to look elsewhere.