2019: The year telecom went doolally about 5G

2019 will be remembered in telecom as the year when 5G arrived and industry hype went into overdrive.

Iain Morris, International Editor

December 10, 2019

5 Min Read
2019: The year telecom went doolally about 5G

Earth continued its slide into mass lunacy in 2019. Jair Bolsonaro, a man who once said he fathered a daughter rather than a fifth son in "a moment of weakness," became president of Brazil. Returning to the D section of his English-language thesaurus, North Korea's Kim Jong-Un called Trump a "dotard" again, months after the two leaders briefly became pals. Britain's suicidal convulsions over exiting the European Union worsened. City dwellers bought more gas-guzzling vehicles designed for Scottish mountains as the Amazon burned (the rainforest, that is, not the tech giant).

People lost it completely over technology. Discourse on social media platforms became even more like a bar brawl between mentally incapacitated drunks. The smombie (smartphone zombie) pandemic spread into new towns. Trump lamented the US lag in 6G. Far-left politicians in the UK proposed nationalizing most of BT, the telecom incumbent, and running it with at least 55,000 employees on £230 million ($303 million) a year.

Figure 1: Smombie in a Red Dress A smartphone zombie photographed moments before a potential collision. A smartphone zombie photographed moments before a potential collision.

Above all, the telecom industry continued to polish the turd that is 5G. Rarely has a technology generated so much industry hype and met with such a blasé response from the broader market. Watch your neighbor's eyes glaze over when you describe its higher speeds and lower latency. Note how he fails to share your excitement when you tell him it will provide extra capacity and reduce costs for service providers.

The industry, if not the consumer, seems to be living in 1999, another mad year for technology when IT nerds convinced company bosses that a millennium date change in computer systems would reset clocks, wipe out records and trigger the end of civilization. That year also marked the eve of 3G, which promised a mobile Internet revolution but couldn't work up the subsequent effort. Operators are now switching it off.

While 4G quietly cleaned up 3G's mess, with a helping hand from Apple and other gadget makers, 5G is neither fixing a consumer problem nor delivering a new experience. And therein lies a big issue. For all its failings, 3G sounded exciting back in the 1990s, when mobile phones were for only calls and texts and even fixed-line Internet services were young. To match that excitement, 5G would have to promise something just as revolutionary. To the average person, it doesn't.

It doesn't to some prospective business customers, either. Energy giant Shell says 4G will do for most applications, including the whizzy predictive maintenance systems it is now installing. Today, it announced the award of a major 4G contract to Tampnet, a specialist firm that operates communications networks for the energy sector. Tampnet will provide 4G services for all of Shell's oil and gas operations in the Gulf of Mexico, including the "high-speed, low-latency" connectivity Shell needs for its drillships. "We are interested in 5G, but we will not be a driving force behind it," said Johan Krebbers, Shell's IT chief technology officer, at a recent industry event.

Despite all this, policymakers now sound as intoxicated as the telecom industry. Governments everywhere have bought into the story that 5G is the most important invention since a few ancient Greeks realized a circular object on an axle would be great for transport. Suddenly, there is a 5G "race" whose winners will inherit the planet -- shortly before some of it disappears under rising seas. 5G even figures in the trade war between China and the US: Trump's lieutenants are fighting Huawei -- a Chinese network equipment maker that is now the world's biggest -- because they claim its 5G products could be used to cripple Western infrastructure at China's behest.

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As unexciting as it sounds, 5G will be ubiquitous a decade from now, with billions of users. Most urban consumers will be steered down the 5G path by service providers marketing low prices and attractive handsets as they switch off older network technologies. Most businesses will adopt it for similar reasons. In this environment, 5G will gradually replace 4G in machine-based connectivity, helping to make factories, mines and offshore oil rigs more productive and secure.

What 5G probably won't do is reinvigorate the telecom industry. In saturated and competitive countries such as the UK, 5G services are already priced at 4G levels. The machines (or "Internet of Things") sector is growing but offers little in revenues from pure connectivity. As for the equipment market, the outlook is for modest growth as operators pool resources, gradually introduce new 5G gear and take advantage of software upgrades whenever possible. Huawei prefers artificial intelligence as a growth story, while Finland's Nokia thinks flogging communications products outside the telecom sector is its best bet.

If a network technology exists for seven to ten years before its successor arrives, then 5G seems unlikely to power self-driving cars or allow surgeons to operate on patients from thousands of miles away. It probably won't be used to make holographic calls from the living room. It might get an outing in virtual and augmented reality, especially if there is no end to Generation Z's gaming addiction. For the wackier services, the world may have to wait for 6G.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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