The quality, speed and robustness of our mobile networks underpins much of what the digital world can and might achieve. And in a year where everyone has relied on the internet more than ever – for communications, healthcare, education, commerce and entertainment – shortcomings in existing networks have been under renewed scrutiny. At the same time, anticipation for 5G has continued to grow in many industries, in the hope that this will unleash new and better ways of doing things. So, is the revolution finally here?
The promise that 5G networks will deliver up to 100x faster speeds, be more reliable, have lower latency and better response times, provide higher capacity for users and greater flexibility has generated huge amounts of interest across the globe. The consensus seems to be that the sheer speed and capacity of 5G networks will enable graphically rich gaming, immersive Virtual Reality (VR)/Augmented Reality (AR), fixed wireless broadband, remote healthcare, widescale use of Internet of Things (IoT), automated factories, autonomous vehicles and even drone deliveries.
Yet it might be time to temper our expectations a little. While many use cases are already in the test or proof-of-concept phase, using prototype networks, devices or other technology, and the results in demo environments have sometimes been promising, we are yet to see large-scale adoption in most cases. With mobile network generations evolving once in a decade at most – understanding what this means, and which key factors are impacting 5G roll-out and take-up, this moment is an instructive one.
While many use cases are already in the test or proof-of-concept phase, using prototype networks, devices or other technology, and the results in demo environments have sometimes been promising, we are yet to see large-scale adoption in most cases. ” Ayman Toema Associate Director
5G network reach, capabilities and complexity
Although roll-out of 5G networks commenced in earnest in 2019, and is now well underway in many countries, this is largely being driven by the commercial mobile network operators. This has led to a focus on serving major cities and towns, where the service is deemed to be commercially viable and attractive to do so. In addition, much of the focus of these deployments has been on delivering enhanced mobile broadband use cases for public consumers (such as high definition video streaming, VR/AR and gaming). The focus isn’t initially on delivering the lower latency and higher network reliability that would be needed for industrial automation and autonomous vehicles.
Complexity is another factor. 5G networks are significantly more complex than previous generation mobile networks. Due to the higher frequencies being used for 5G, each site serves a smaller area, meaning more masts and equipment are needed, in more places. Also, to deliver the higher capacities promised, the equipment required at some sites will be quite substantial (weighing hundreds of kilograms and with a surface area of tens of metres squared per sector per mobile network operator). Accommodating the infrastructure required, specifically on existing towers and rooftops, from a spatial, structural and wind loading perspective may not be straightforward.
Devices and timing
As 5G networks start to become available, the question remains: what devices can be connected to it? Understandably, to date, the first 5G-enabled devices to come to market have been prestige smartphones. The availability of other devices however, such as building sensors, laptops and wearables, is largely very limited. Many manufacturers are still waiting for the right moment to enter the market.
This will change over time of course. But it’s another reminder that investment and adoption must be well timed. The 5G device ecosystem is set to expand, as networks roll-out and additional frequency bands are utilised, however the rate and extent to which this will take place is yet to be seen.
Your own private network?
Many enterprises, particularly those with large campuses or multiple sites in their portfolio, have started to consider developing their own private 5G networks as a future connectivity platform. Yet, despite the benefits of having their own private network, dedicated to their own purposes and retaining control and ownership of critical infrastructure/data, many quickly find the costs involved too great, and the business case can’t be made.
4G's ongoing value
What’s clear right now is that though the potential is huge, and in some senses the technological leaps are inevitable, widespread take-up of 5G may still be somewhat ‘in the future’. And with 4G coverage in excess of 80% in most countries, and forecast to reach over 90% by 2025, 4G is likely to remain the dominant mobile technology for now.
We can therefore expect to see 5G networks complementing, and coexisting with, 4G for the foreseeable future. And let’s not overlook the fact that 4G networks have also evolved greatly to deliver increased capacity and faster speeds. Hence, despite the arrival of 5G, 4G will continue to be a viable, credible and cost-effective solution, particularly for certain use cases, such as massive IoT.
It has also become evident that for many industries to benefit from 5G, they first have to be clear-eyed about how to realise that potential – it must be rigorously evaluated: from initial business case, timing, physical implications and technical realisation. Realism about what might be achieved and when, is the name of the game for now.
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