5G still a technology looking for a purpose

There's a saying around the industry that mobile repeats itself every two generations: 2G and 4G were hugely successful; 1G, 3G and 5G not so.

It might be too early to judge 5G, but when it comes to expectations it is certainly tracking in the path of 3G.

3G emerged at the crest of dotcom fever and was expected to seamlessly deliver the mobile web, which of course didn't happen; at first it barely worked at all.

5G has also been burdened by weighty predictions, though at least we can say it has worked, notwithstanding the 570,000 South Koreans who went back to LTE.

But 18 months into the commercial deployment of 5G, the returns are paltry.

The two big South Korean operators, SKT and KT, have if anything gone backwards. The latest filings reveal all the key financial data are flat or declining. Likewise the Chinese telcos.

Unlike early 3G or 4G, we can't blame this on devices. China has around 100 different handsets available with some of the price bundles costing as little as 100 yuan ($15.11).

China has raced to around 200 million 5G "package" subscribers, which, even though it overstates the real total, points to how smoothly 5G deployment has gone compared with previous generations.

Yet for all that, it's still a technology looking for a purpose. No wonder Chinese operators are selling it on price.

The non-progress of 5G is attracting some desperate commentary in China, where it's seen as a matter of national pride, not to mention some $30 billion in sunk costs.

So far, 5G just hasn't created any excitement. There are no game-changing new apps or devices. They will come eventually, just as the iPhone arrived to drive traffic onto 3G networks.

Want to know more about 5G? Check out our dedicated 5G content channel here on Light Reading.

It's true operators and analysts expect much of the business value of 5G to derive from enterprise services, which will take some years to develop.

But it's ridiculous to think operators can drop several years' worth of capex and get nothing for their consumers other than more efficient delivery of data.

5G desperately needs the proverbial killer app to bring it to life.

If there's a lesson here it seems to be that the 5G "race" is not a sprint. There is no apparent first-mover advantage, especially for those who deployed non-standalone.

The smart ones are those who are pacing themselves and going straight to standalone.

— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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