5G Faces a Marathon, Not a Sprint
Telecom bosses love to associate technology innovation with the glitz of major sports events. Operators in South Korea plan to showcase 5G at next year's Winter Olympics, while Japan's will do the same at Tokyo's Summer Games in 2020. Asked at the recent Mobile World Congress if Europe needed a similar event to demonstrate its own 5G prowess, Timotheus Höttges, the CEO of Germany's Deutsche Telekom, could barely keep his long-limbed enthusiasm for the idea in check.
Even in the absence of a sports fixture, industry stakeholders cannot resist reaching for a sports metaphor. Italy is going to be the "Champions League" of 5G, said Antonello Giacomelli, Italy's secretary for communications, in announcing 5G rollout plans this week, according to press reports. (See Eurobites: Italy First Pasta the Post for 5G.)
Other individuals must hope that some of the prestige and popularity of high-profile sports contests rubs off on 5G. A recent industry push means the first standardized 5G services could be introduced as soon as 2019. (US telco giant AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) is even aiming for a 2018 launch). Service providers want them to arrive like a trophy-winning team. (See 3GPP Approves Plans to Fast Track 5G NR and AT&T Expects Mobile 5G Services in 'Late 2018'.)
Yet despite the inevitable hype that will surround the launch of 5G, the initial experience seems bound to underwhelm. As Light Reading's special report on 5G points out, the next-generation network technology is facing an uphill marathon rather than a downhill sprint. Given scant evidence of any need for a much higher-speed technology, and doubts over the business case for new types of service, 5G is unlikely to be any different from its predecessors in failing to buoy telco sales. (See The Growing Pains of 5G.)
What's more, the bill for network rollout, especially if operators make use of much higher frequencies, could well be astronomical. Relying heavily on low-band spectrum might help to reduce deployment costs, but it could also weaken the 5G service (signals travel further in lower bands, meaning less equipment is needed, but there is also less spectrum in these ranges, making it harder to provide high-speed connectivity).
Through innovation on the equipment side, including the introduction of new software and virtualization technologies, operators should be able to improve the economics of 5G deployment to some extent, without undermining performance. Yet the rollout of 5G networks will probably be a drawn-out and painful experience, with operators taking advantage of 4G improvements to address most consumer and enterprise demands for the foreseeable future.
A hard and sweaty slog, long-distance running lacks the excitement and glamor of Champions League soccer, or an Usain Bolt sprint. It is probably not what Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT)'s Höttges had in mind when he agreed that a sports event would help European operators to showcase 5G. But it would certainly look apt.
— Iain Morris, , News Editor, Light Reading