5G is another disruption requiring a leap of faith

Vendors seeking breakthrough application that can justify necessary heavy investment

I recall my heated debate more than 20 years ago with a well-known CEO of a State-owned telecoms operator, on the likely future demand for broadband services. At that time, one of the biggest web applications was ticket purchase – particularly for flights, and concerts. His strongly held view was that even if e-commerce increased, there would be little justification in further capital investment in broadband infrastructure, since these applications would never require substantial bandwidth. We agreed to disagree.

Now we are at the cusp of a further evolution of broadband services, with the advent of “5th Generation” or 5G networks.

5G networks and smart devices offer substantially higher bandwidth, and faster response, than our current 3G and 4G services. With a 3G network, a high definition film or video may require a day or even longer to download onto your device. With a 4G network, it may take an hour or so. 5G promises that it will take at most a few seconds.

5G technology uses dedicated new bands of low, mid and high radio spectrum. These three bands range from approximately one quarter of the frequency used in domestic microwave ovens, to up to well over ten times that frequency.


In general, these higher “millimetre” frequencies enable more communication channels to be simultaneously carried than the current wireless technologies, and with each channel carrying higher data rates. However, millimetre waves are attenuated by the atmosphere, and so have a very much shorter range. Current 3G and 4G transmission towers can cover tens of square kilometres, whereas the footprint of a 5G cell may be limited to a short street or city block.

More cell towers

The short range of 5G implies that many more cell towers will be needed to cover a given area. The transmitter/receiver units offered by manufacturers such as Ericsson, Huawei and Qualcomm are generally quite small, about the size of a small rucksack. As such they can be attached to street lamp posts or the sides of buildings, rather than requiring new towers to be built.

However the sheer cell density required for 5G, and the operating expenses (including field maintenance) for a larger number of units, implies a heavy investment by network operators. Roll-out is likely to be spotty, with some areas remaining only 3G or 4G for a time. Consumers will need to purchase new devices for 5G, but mobile devices will have to seamlessly transition between 5G and lower bandwidth areas. What then are the “killer applications” which can justify the costs involved?

No doubt many consumers will be attracted to very fast downloads of high definition video and film content. But given that a full movie can be loaded in just a few seconds, it will require myriad consumers all located within the small footprint of the same 5G cell to be downloading many movies a day, to exploit the available bandwidth.

High density of viewers

Within a small 5G cell footprint, will a high density of viewers continuously watch TV and sports coverage over 5G, switching from cable or satellite? Should 5G be provisioned to domestic homes and apartments as an alternative to bringing fibre to the home, or just to mobile devices in specific high density hotspots (such as shopping streets), or if to both then at what cost?

New applications have been proposed. Perhaps one can envisage expert surgeons using high definition screens and equipment to conduct remote surgical procedures, but it would take a large number of simultaneous operations in multiple clinics to consume the available bandwidth.

Manufacturing plants, factories and freight transportation hubs may be better able to automate their operations by integrating many more sensors and controllers into their sites: but it would take huge volumes data being continuously streamed within each site to fully exploit the 5G coverage.

Public street safety could be enhanced by mounting live-feed CCTV cameras on almost every street lamp post – but only if the public were unconcerned about privacy. Autonomous vehicles may become safer with the high capacity and low latency response of a 5G network, but that implies installing 5G cells along the (entire nationwide) road network.

Intense data rates

Many 5G technology vendors are searching for the breakthrough application that can justify the necessary heavy investment. Virtual reality (in which the consumer sees an entirely computer-generated visual world), and augmented reality (in which computer-generated content is overlaid onto a real-world view) both require intense data rates to render faithful and high quality content.

You could watch sports being played out on your table top, viewed live from any angle and zooming in as you crouch down to get a better look. You could walk up to and chat with co-workers and business partners in their home locations, without having to travel. You could walk through the top department stores of the world, picking up items and examining them, and then seeing what they would look like in your current location, whether it be inside or outside.

Operators needed a leap of faith more than twenty years ago to invest in broadband. The explosive growth of mobile devices and video content subsequently justified the decision. 5G is another disruption to the industry. The first movers or the thoughtful laggards may ultimately win, depending on whether and how quickly killer applications emerge.