In the wake of MWC Barcelona, the legendary gathering of mobile technology and communications companies, the enthusiasm is high for 5G connectivity and the mind-bending innovations this new infrastructure will power. The hype around 5G makes it sound like magic, but anyone involved in implementation knows it takes years of investment and planning, coordinated strategies, a massive supply chain of components and software, attention to a million simultaneous details, and endless hard work and rework by those on the front lines of deployment. And that is before we get to privacy and security matters, innovation potential, or yet-to-be-discovered use cases.
Much more than Mobile 5.0
The world’s leading operators and government initiatives are well on the way to making 5G connectivity a reality. If even half of the buzz from Barcelona is to be believed, 5G is arriving in style. The Mobile Economy 2019 report, released during MWC 2019, claims that operators worldwide are pouring $160 billion each year into network upgrades. By 2025, the report forecasts, 15 percent of the world’s mobile industry will run on 5G, with about half of the 5G connections in the US, and a third in China and Europe.
We have seen such profound transformation through digital technology over the past 30 years, we may be a bit jaded about the “next big thing”. It is important to remember that 5G is much more than a step up from 4G. It has the potential to change our lives, businesses, and public infrastructure as profoundly as the Internet and smartphones — in part because it will make bandwidth access and personal computing more powerful and widespread than we could have imagined 20 years ago.
Indeed, standing on the threshold of 5G commercialization feels a bit like standing on a precipice. Looking across the chasm of change and emerging challenges to global deployment, it is clear that while more than 150 operators in at least 65 countries are preparing for launch, there is a lot we don’t know yet. Key learnings from worldwide technology shifts — cloud, mobile, and big data — should be thoughtfully integrated, especially when it extends to lessons about cyber security, data privacy, supply chain vulnerabilities, cost controls, and risk management.
The 5G ripple effect
Faster networking capabilities always produce cascading effects, and a leap forward like 5G is sure to see waves of change impacting the extended supply chain. High-speed digital networking necessitates faster memory and serial bus communications, which means new or upgraded standards, as well as precision testing capabilities that can keep up with high-speed networks and data transfer while delivering mission-critical reliability.
Forging the links between operator and consumer will continue to involve hardware and software networking companies, carriers and data centers, terminal and chipset vendors, internet companies, standards organizations, and any organization involved in digital application and services delivery. In other words, to get the most out of 5G — and to innovate and evolve quickly to satisfy the global hunger for low-latency, high speed connectivity everywhere — the supply chain players need to remain deeply engaged in collaboration around standards, testing, metrics, quality, and sustainability.
Furthermore, almost nothing about 5G deployment will be simple, standalone, or finite. Governments, major operators, and brokers (e.g., patent pools) will have to work together to build out and license infrastructure while preserving and extending investments in 4G systems. Device makers are already struggling to nail down chip designs for phones that won’t be in user’s hands for over a year, for use on networks that do not yet exist beyond unlisted hotspots in central urban areas.
Balancing capital investments, new product and service launches, and the cost of consumer 5G devices and connections is already proving to be tricky. Major players will have to continue investing in 4G for many years as 5G evolves, while also supporting LTE, Wi-Fi, and various types of base stations on 5G networks. Infrastructures being built now must be designed for present, near-future, and longer term uses, some of which are not yet defined. International trade and cyber security implications are rising factors that could quickly morph into obstacles.
Serious innovation potential
The most enthusiastic 5G buzz is centered around certain use cases that governments and technology leaders have been working toward for many years already — smart cities, autonomous vehicles, connected healthcare, augmented and virtual reality environments, and industrial automation. These encompass multiple emerging technologies, including IoT, software-defined networking, network slicing and virtualization, voice-centric interfaces — and of course, machine learning and AI. The complex mix of technology, standards and protocols, capabilities, configurations and interdependencies are daunting as well as thrilling.
In mission-critical use cases like automated traffic and transportation systems, self-driving cars, telemedicine, financial services, and smart factories, there is no room for latency or error. While 5G will enable the speeds and stability required by these uses, that is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. For example, one of the central benefits of 5G is that it is supposed to use less electrical power. While industry leaders have taken this into account while developing standards, realizing significant energy savings in an increasingly digital world will require the collaboration and application of chip and device makers, base-station designers, and network architects. Finally, network performance measurements, supply chain quality assurance, equipment endurance, and security and privacy must be comprehensively addressed (and continuously improved) for 5G, and for these use cases to scale into widespread, successful implementations.
The road ahead is long and winding. Designing fundamentally sound and sustainable strategies for making efficient progress on your organization’s 5G journey is imperative. Don’t forget the lessons learned from other major transformations, such as cloud and mobile, but also don’t count on 5G transitions rolling out swiftly and easily. The learning curve is steep, the competition is fierce and global, and the regulatory regime is dynamic and complicated. Careful steps taken now will find us all further down the road when the promise of 5G begins to dawn on a whole new wireless world.