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Reality check on 5G

The 2019 Gartner Hyoe Cycle shows 5G at the top. That’s great but it also means it will be on a downward path from now on to eventually reach market maturity. Image credit: Gartner

The new Gartner Hype Cycle for 2019 emerging technologies is out and the position of 5G caught my eye. It is right at the top of the curve, meaning it has reached the top of the hype (it is mentioned in 726 million pages according to Google, not as many as sex that is over 5 billion, but still impressive!).

Now we can expect, if the Hype Curve will apply to 5G, to see a decreasing hype as the focus will shift to some other novelty and 5G gets ready to mature. Notice that there is still plenty on 5G that is the subject of research and even what is already a standard today will take a few years to be adopted by the industry, by Operators and by the market. We will be seeing the last improvements to 4G hitting the market in 2023, so it is no surprise that we will be seeing improvements to 5G well into the second part of the next decade, hence it is correct to see Gartner listing 5G as an emerging technology.

As an example, the integration of WiFi (6 first and then 7) under the 5G umbrella will take a few years. The exploitation of NFV -Network Function Virtualisation-, slicing and SDN – Software Defined Network- will also take several years. The session management shifting from the Network Operators to devices and to Service Providers (OTT) will likely take place in the second part of the next decade.

The adoption of 5G by car manufacturers for V2V (Vehicle to Vehicle) communications and the integration of DSRC (Direct Short-Range Communications) will be a topic of discussion for a few more years and today it is not sure which will be the end result (could even be that 6G will be the one leading to a unification in the V2V area). There are parties (usually Telecom Operators) convinced that 5G will work for V2V and will be used in the near term, others saying that one need an edge computing architecture to use 5G in V2V whilst others are still discussion on the feasibility of a ubiquitous V2V in terms of infrastructure.

As of today, Operators are struggling with the need to invest a huge amount of money to deploy a pervasive 5G infrastructure (after having spent huge money on spectrum licence) and generate revenues. This is approached through marketing, and as you know marketing does not need to tell the truth, it just have to ring a bell in people’s head. So you see advertisement talking of “5G superpowers!” and “Giganetwork 5G” (taken from Italian ads…). Of course they are meaningless, but may be they could stimulate the market. It does not look as they are really effective in generating extra cash, since, at least in Italy, there is no premium charge to connect to 5G… It is more a hype that supposedly should reinforce stickiness to an Operator and avoid churn.

There are also true, but completely irrelevant, claims like “with 5G you can stream a 4k movie. Sure, in terms of speed and capacity you can do that, but why would you want to stream a 4k movie on a mobile device? An HD streaming for a tablet would be plenty, a low res streaming on a smartphone would be undistinguishable from any higher resolution streaming on that smartphone…

The problem is that we are living in the age of technology abundance, delivery performances that are, for most people and most usage cases, beyond the need, and the possibility to perceive the difference. There are niches that can see the need and appreciate the difference but the wireless game is fundamentally a mass market game, you need volumes to generate ROI and niches are just the cherry on the cake. What Operators are missing, in 5G, is the cake.

Few days ago in its September announcement of new iPhone models, the 11th iteration, Apple never mentioned 5G, and it is not part of the new iPhones features. They preferred to invest on cameras upgrade rather than on a communications capability that is far from being pervasive and as such irrelevant to most people. Rumours have it that it will be a feature of next year iPhones, possibly with more advanced AR capabilities that would take advantage of it and make 5G relevant to many users. A few comments on the press voiced that the lack of 5G on the 11th generation of iPhone may shift the market to Samsung and Huawei who have released top of the line phones with that capability. I don’t think so. The time of 5G is not here yet. Personally today I would not chose a phone because it supports 5G, In two years time it will be different.

A final note on the Hype Curve 2019: Digital Twins have disappeared. They were at the top of the curve in 2018, now they are nowhere to be seen. I think this is correct, they are no longer an emerging technology, they are used as an established tool in many areas. Gartner should have included in the left hand side the “cognitive digital twins” that are today on the growing ramp.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.