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

Mar 25, 20216 mins
5GInternet of ThingsNetworking

Hype around 5G suggests it will prompt revolutionary changes in what wireless is used for, but it’s success will be providing better answers to existing problems.

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Credit: iStock

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?”

This is getting silly. How much 5G spaghetti do we have to push before we accept that maybe we should be eating it instead? Start your meal of 5G realism with the lowly dongle. 5G can be used to connect a local Wi-Fi hotspot with enough capacity to share among a group of users.  It’s a great disaster-recovery strategy, and it’s a small part of another great opportunity, which is using 5G to replace wireline broadband. AT&T has recently announced it would be expanding its 5G offerings, to include both 5G backup and 5G replacement of wireline broadband for businesses. Dongle 5G, supporting multiple users, would need the extra bandwidth 5G can supply.

Wireline broadband replacement works for residential, too. I just read an article where a politician suggested that we should establish 100Mbps as the minimum broadband speed throughout the US.  Policy without realization isn’t helpful, though. The reason why we don’t have universal fast broadband is that in many areas, there’s no way to distribute it profitably, and no private company is going to lose money to fulfill a promise from a politician. Enter 5G.

The use of millimeter-wave 5G from neighborhood node/microcell locations to the home or office could bring up to 1 Gbps broadband to users as far as several miles away, without any need to run fiber or CATV to the home or figure out how to get DSL over copper loop to work at those speeds. It’s hard to get good data on this, but my model says that virtually every small town, and many suburban neighborhoods that can’t get good broadband today could get a gigabit this way.

That’s not the end of the benefit, either. Standard mobile-service 5G could service customers five or 10 times as distant from a standard tower.  Could we give them all that 100Mbps baseline capacity? That’s hard to say because the necessary 5G technology is still evolving, but my 5G engineer friends say it’s not out of the question. With the combination of millimeter-wave 5G and mobile 5G, we could cover probably 90% of users with 5G-fixed-broadband. Best of all, both kinds of 5G would be cheaper than new fiber-to-the-home or CATV deployments, and operators might be willing to offer them without subsidies.

The trouble is that this seems boring compared with 5G robots and a houseful of 5G “things”. Let’s face it, we’re working harder on entertaining ourselves with 5G stories than on realizing 5G value. Why not consider space aliens plopping down and demanding 5G coverage for their smartphones? We may be mere days from somebody writing a story about that possibility. Or maybe we can turn our pets into 5G IoT users by injecting them with radios or teach them to use smartphones. Or maybe we can just get real.

Wishing doesn’t create business cases, and uphill isn’t the easiest path for technology any more than it is for spaghetti. 5G value can be promoted if we accept that it’s going to come from things that we can already identify and that can exploit 5G’s capacity benefits. 5G doesn’t need over-promotion to be valuable, just more work on the things that can really make business cases, even boring ones.


Tom Nolle is founder and principal analyst at Andover Intel, a unique consulting and analysis firm that looks at evolving technologies and applications first from the perspective of the buyer and the buyers’ needs. Tom is a programmer, software architect, and manager of large software and network products by background, and he has been providing consulting services and technology analysis for decades. He’s a regular author of articles on networking, software development, and cloud computing, as well as emerging technologies like IoT, AI, and the metaverse.

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