Wang Jianzhou, the elder statesman of the Chinese mobile industry, has called for 5G devices with new functionality to drive growth.
Wang, who headed up both China Mobile and China Unicom and was a widely respected GSMA board member, addressed some of the anxieties of Chinese and global 5G in a speech to a Beijing tech conference earlier this week.
Despite the huge scale of China's 5G efforts, with 819,000 basestations deployed and 285 million package subscribers signed up, industry leaders are worried about the lack of innovative services and rising energy costs.
Wang said only "massive consumer-level applications" could take full advantage of the coverage and huge capacity of 5G networks.
He said that while many industrial use cases had already become a reality, new consumer 5G applications were rare.
"I think the tipping point of 5G consumer-level applications is likely to be the device," he said.
He noted that aside from new chips and antennas, 5G handsets did not contain any new functionality.
"They are not yet ideal 5G mobile phones. Consumers need 5G mobile devices with new functions," he said, citing the impact of browser-enabled phones, led by the iPhone, that drove the explosion of 3.5G and 4G mobile Internet.
Wang suggested two directions for devices. One was to expand existing capabilities to include functions such as IoT and AI. "Make mobile phones the controller of all things," he said.
Some new functionalities were already emerging, he said, such as laser rangefinders that enabled phones to measure distance, enabling a new range of apps.
The other is to focus on wearables. "The combination with 5G smartphones can produce many new functions," he said.
On the network side, 5G rollouts needed to further expand their scale and coverage and to save energy and other costs.
5G's outlook was clouded by "a serious shortage" of both low-end and middle-range spectrum, Wang said.
"It is essential to establish multi-band coordinated 5G networks as soon as possible."
He also said operators should be further encouraged to expand network co-construction and sharing.
Network sharing and rollout had already become a trend, he noted, with China Unicom and China Telecom saving billions of dollars from their shared 5G project.
He also called on the industry to drive down energy consumption by adding network intelligence.
The huge power consumption and high operating costs of 5G networks meant it was necessary to further improve 5G network efficiency and to implement intelligent networks.
— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading