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5G is fast but will it make a difference to me?

5G Coverage in Manhattan, New York. The bright red is the current 5G coverage provided by Veirzon, the light red is the 4G coverage. Notice how 5G is covering streets, not inside buildings. Image credit: Verizon

I run into Shelly Palmer blog commenting on the 5G coverage info released by Verizon. It is just at the starting block, as it can be expected, but the coverage image is indeed stimulating some thoughts. I will pick up some of his comments (read his post to get a first hand account) and add some others.

If one looks at the map it is clear that 5G is covering streets, not buildings. Now, it is obvious that the problem is not with the coverage design, it would be unthinkable to imagine that Verizon has designed their coverage to cover “only” the streets and not the building. This limited coverage is the result of using mm waves (28GHz, 39GHz) that do not penetrate across building walls. In fact, if you look at the map you can see that the coverage nicely extend to cover a portion of the East River (where you won’t expect to have many people walking on the water with a handset in their hands).

Further, looking at the map one can see that there are at least 15 antennas/cells to deliver that coverage to such a limited area (each cell can cover 200 to 300m radius, way smaller than a 4G or 3G antenna). That means significant investment to provide a full coverage, 10 times as much, on average, than an equivalent coverage in 4G, big bucks.

The speed, as measured by one of Shelly intern, reached an impressive 987 Mbps (let’s say a Gigabit per second!). My impression, however, is that such an amazing speed is not “real” in the sense that there aren’t that many people today with a 5G phone, meaning that it is most likely that there was no capacity competition (the intern was the only one accessing the cell!).

As Shelly points out, the issue is not the radio link speed, rather the experienced speed by the end user and that speed depends on the network, on the servers hosting the data, on the software on the smartphone (apps) making use of those data. When you put together all these factors you might discover that the radio link plays a smaller role than what you might expect. True, if the radio link capacity is low than you will experience a low “speed” independently of the other factors. However, once the radio link can deliver a certain capacity, like 100 Mbps, it is most unlikely that you would appreciate any difference with a radio link offering 1 Gbps capacity. Actually, I would claim that for 99% of your smartphone use (I am being conservative here) if you could get a true 15 Mbps of radio link capacity you will not notice any difference from a 1 Gbps capacity (an exception is of course if you are trying to download a 4k movie as Telcos are ready to point out but this begs the question of why you would want to download a 4k movie as you walk in the street…; you would be much more likely to do that -and not on your smartphone, once you are back home on your couch; a pity that the 5G signal remains outside of the window).

So, on the one hand we see increased investment to provide the coverage and on the other hand the unlikeliness of people noticing the difference.  Actually, this reminds me that I saw recently a demo of using 5G to drive a drone. Low latency, high bandwidth requirements would make for an ideal demo. Talking behind the “curtains” with the tech people who set up the demo for the marketing people I discovered that the actual radio link to the drones was using 4G, because there was not a 5G dongle available to plug on the drone. Now, I am too old to comment on the marketing approach to “adapt” reality to their needs. My point is that this little cheating is demonstrating that you can indeed use 4G to do what you are claiming would require 5G!

Now, don’t take my rambling as an opinion that 5G is not needed, nor that it won’t be used. As for previous wireless systems 5G will be exploited to its real potential in the next decade, as new applications will be released that were not available before because 5G was not there. The point is that today we do not know what those applications will be. We know that some industry sectors would benefit from the enhanced performance delivered by 5G (manufacturing, automotive, healthcare) but those are little niches that will not generate sufficient ROI to repay the investment.

I would expect that a mass-market area that will leverage on 5G will be Digital Reality. The shift to Digital Reality may occur in the coming decade when the cyberspace will merge seamlessly with the physical space through Augmented Reality. Today we are missing devices that can enable that bridge. Smartphones can deliver AR, but that is not seamless. Electronic contact lenses are at prototyping stage. AR glasses need to be perfected before hitting the mass market. It will take time, but I bet it will come.

This is bound to generate a huge market, and huge value. How much of that will be captured by Telcos remains to be seen (broadband has indeed enabled the growth of new markets but just a tiny slice of the revenues ended up in the Telcos coffers).

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.