I’d like to offer us to think a little differently about 5G than what most of the headlines are focusing on. The absence of 5G in Apple’s new iPhone’s drove some nonsense headlines, and commentators seemed to jump on the iPhone’s lack of 5G for 2019 as a missed opportunity. While I understand the desire to market 5G as an advantage from Apple’s competition, the reality is in most major markets in the world, 5G is not ready for the iPhone.
This early in a technology transition, most global networks are simply not ready to handle the scale to 5G Apple could bring given they would ship more 5G devices than any vendor by a magnitude more in just a matter of months. Friends of mine in telecom have confirmed my suspicion that the 5G networks are just not ready for that kind of scale. Yes, perhaps China is different, and while a fair point, Apple would not make a 5G variant of the iPhone just for China. However, this is not the point I want to focus on in this analysis. Rather, I want us to think differently about why 5G is important, and why it’s better for us to think about 5G’s value less about smartphones and more about everything else.
5G and the New Internet
5G is bigger than smartphones. Yes, it will make our smartphones faster, and let us stream more high-quality video, play more games with little to no latency, and overall help us browse the Internet faster. At a global level, this matters because there are markets whose consumers are still using painfully slow wireless broadband. So yes, 5G will be great for smartphones, but the story is much bigger.
There is a much larger connected world looming on the horizon, and 5G is absolutely built for the bigger connected world. In the LTE world, our smartphones alone are clogging the near entirety of the network. There is simply no room for connected cars, smart cities, smart grids, smart home, robotics, remote healthcare, public safety, etc., the list can go on. For the vast array of billions of devices not yet connected to the Internet, 5G was built for them. And thus, this is why I am positioning 5G as the foundation for the new Internet.
What Would 5G Bring To the New Internet?
There are a number of fundamental new advantages that come with 5G. A few key points are the ones I think make up the core of the new foundation 5G will enable that was not possible in the LTE era and LTE network architectures.
Low Latency enables Mission-Critical Applications. The dramatic increase in the amount of data which can be pushed up and down the network with 5G at incredibly low latency is essential for the new Internet. I mentioned autonomous cars, but these are on the shortlist of mission-critical processes that benefit from low-latency. We can’t have cars that can’t visually process the elements of the road and use a hybrid on-device and cloud processing to make split-second decisions on the road to suffer from network latency. It just simply will not be possible to have fleets of autonomous cars without massive throughput at low latency, and that is not possible with LTE. 5G was built for low-latency, and the architecture underlying both at the network and on the chipsets is essential to move autonomous transportation forward. On this point, 5G was not designed just for low-latency but levels of reliability that we have not previously seen in older network technologies. For things like autonomy, robotics, even things like remote health care (remote surgery, for example) things we all believe we are working toward in the future which are mission-critical can now become possible.
High Throughput and Low Power. In an industry research report I read on 5G, a point was made about 5G bringing significantly more capacity for edge devices than 4G/LTE. The report’s analysis dove into the technical elements that make this possible, but analyzed how in the 4G/LTE era, any given network/tower could only support around 2,000 devices per square kilometer. 5G enables this number to move up to 1 million devices per square kilometer. Again, all with higher throughput capabilities, at lower power demands on each device.
This point alone helps us understand why 5G was built for the Internet of things. Many forecasts estimate in the 2021/2022 timeframe we could have 30 billion connected devices. This will not be possible without 5G.
True Edge Computing. Yes, edge computing is a buzzword, but enabling much higher levels of computational capabilities of edge computing devices like a vast array of camera sensors, health sensors, IoT edge devices enabled by smart cities and smart grid, and more, will all require much more computational capabilities at the edge with direct integrations into the cloud computing systems they are running on.
There is huge upside in the data center on this point alone, as well as enabling growth for the cloud providers like Microsoft, Amazon, and Google in this future and it won’t happen without 5G infrastructure.
- Dynamic Network Slicing. This one is interesting as it will fuse machine learning at the network level in new ways. With dynamic network slicing, which is a completely new feature with 5G, carriers and service providers will be able to dynamically optimize a portion of the network, for specific use cases. Say a specific city has higher demands on the network due to smart grid, or robotaxis, a network can smartphone optimize their network for any areas specific use case thus providing the highest quality of service. Being able to tune networks, on the fly, for specific use cases is one of the more interesting features I’ve come across, and it will be interesting to see how carriers use this part of the new 5G infrastructure.
Those buckets are the ones that stick out to me as things that 5G enables that are new, and as I said, this is a much bigger story and a much bigger future than just smartphones. Will smartphones benefit? Yes, and as augmented reality keeps developing, and other core technology the smartphone will help drive, they will all be enabled by 5G in ways LTE could not. But the 5G era is critical to moving us forward into the digital future we envision. One that will bring many businesses into the digital world in ways not previously available to them. It will transform industries and create tremendous additional value for economies worldwide.
Will it be easy? No, this may be one of the more difficult network transitions simply due to the complexity and fundamental changes in the network and on devices. This may be one of the more difficult “Gs” and costly. Unfortunately, we have had in decades if not ever. That being said, it is worth it for the benefits, and many industries are moving to take a vested interest to move 5G forward.
I understand the voices of the critics and the 5G skeptics, but the criticism I hear is large because the 5G narrative has been isolated to smartphones. This is why I encourage a much larger picture to be embraced when we think about the role 5G will play and why I think we will look back on this transition like the one that enabled a fundamentally new kind of Internet.