5G Stuck in Slow Lane Beyond Consumer Biz
During a round of pre-Christmas drinks with a belligerent motoring-and-technology journalist and a marketing executive from a major telecom association, the topic of 5G for self-driving cars came up. 5G will never help cars drive themselves, said the journalist, because (among other things) the cost of providing wide-area coverage with low-latency guarantees will remain prohibitive. Nonsense, said the marketing executive. 5G will certainly figure in the urban self-driving experience, even if that takes another few years. Just in time for 6G, then?
This lively, alcohol-fueled discussion highlighted much of the concern that still surrounds 5G as a breakthrough technology. Its advocates hope it will provide connectivity for all manner of things, from cars to robot surgeons and virtual-reality headsets, becoming a kind of magical, Jedi-like force that binds together the digital cosmos. But the industry is still years away from this vision. By the time it happens (and there is no certainty it will), telecom may be preparing for its next big G.
The industry is desperate to see 5G go beyond the consumer gadgetry that accounts for nearly all 4G business. In a saturated smartphone market, and with consumers replacing their devices less frequently, the only hope for growth is to seed 5G elsewhere. But there are two hurdles. First, the standards needed to support 5G outside the normal consumer market are still not ready. And second, the industries that would theoretically take advantage of these standards are still not ready for 5G.
On the standards side, what operators are this year touting as 5G is Release 15 of the 3GPP's specifications. Fast-tracked after the industry was engulfed in a torrent of 5G enthusiasm, this includes a New Radio (capitalized for effect) standard as well as a new core. It promises to support blazing speeds and reduce the signaling delay (or latency) that bedevils today's mobile technology. Yet it remains a mobile broadband technology, unlikely to see much use beyond smartphones, tablets and fixed broadband replacement.
For much else on a grand scale, the world really needs Release 16. This will include support for what the industry calls Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communication (URLCC, with more important-looking capital letters), guaranteeing latency of just a few milliseconds, compared with the 50 or 60 the UK's Vodafone averages today. Without URLCC, applications such as precision robotics and automated delivery will simply not be feasible, as described in this Light Reading story from November. Release 16 will also come with support for C-V2X, designed specifically to handle vehicle-based communications, according to Maged Zaki, a director of technical marketing for Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM). (See 2019 Will See Commercial C-V2X Rollouts Throughout the World.)
The first Release 16 standard was supposed to be frozen in December this year, but a three-month delay to the 3GPP's 5G schedule means it will not be ready until March 2020, at the earliest. That is hardly the distant future, though. The lack of clear-cut 5G deployment scenarios is the more pressing issue. Unless there is a flurry of activity in the next 18 months, Release 16 may land on the commercial stage with no one from other industries to applaud it. (See 5G Standard Hits Unexpected 3-Month Delay, Exclusive: Early 5G Network Gear Won't 'Talk' to Device Chipsets and 3GPP NR Spec Delay Will Not Affect Initial 5G Launches.)
Without going into standards detail, Timotheus Höttges, the CEO of Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT), touched on the dilemma during an October update on the German operator's 5G plans. "We talked to IT experts but not to the product marketing people and this means that we have a cacophony of different requirements and no one knows what the actual need is," he said. To spur activity, Deutsche Telekom is now trying to bring industries such as chemicals, healthcare and car making into the 5G discussion. The goal, said Höttges, is to "define requirements together and implement and execute these in the framework for the infrastructure." (See Deutsche Telekom Targets 99% 5G Coverage in Germany by 2025.)
He is not the only telco executive to have voiced concern. "We have established the enhanced mobile broadband use case and built a business case to invest in 5G based on that, but I am still waiting for us to concretely land the business cases that truly exploit low latency and massive connectivity," said Howard Watson, the chief technology officer of the UK's BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA), during a presentation at Informa's 5G World Summit in June last year. "We need to work to convince our CFOs of the next wave of investment." (See 5G Still More Like Rocket Fuel Than a Mission to Mars.)
France's Orange (NYSE: FTE) has sounded just as rattled. "Operators are waiting for industries to provide them with use cases, industries are waiting for operators to provide them with the enablers and performance they need, and the regulator is trying to figure out the business model before it awards spectrum," said Emmanuel Lugagne Delpon, a senior vice president with the Orange Labs Networks research division, during a conversation with Light Reading at the same 5G event. "Everyone is waiting for everyone."
Somewhat like Deutsche Telekom, Orange has been trying to overcome the inertia by inviting other industries to work with it on 5G development. In partnership with Finland's Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK), it has set up a facility in Paris where companies can test new "use cases" for 5G technology. It is also trying to educate other industries about network slicing -- a 5G feature that would essentially reserve a secure "slice" of network capacity for a specific service -- and what this would mean for service level agreements.
Next page: Signs of progress
Signs of progress
It would be wrong to argue there has been zero progress during the past year. During an impressive demonstration at its UK headquarters in Newbury, Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD) completed a holographic call over a 5G connection in September, beaming a full-size 3D image of England soccer captain Steph Houghton onto the main stage. In November, BT took reporters to Wembley Stadium to show off 5G as a broadcast replacement for costlier, satellite-based systems. South Korea's SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM) is perhaps the standout performer: It has already used 5G not only for broadcasting but also to support process improvements at a car parts factory in South Korea, it claims. (See Vodafone's Holo Demo Dazzles Crowd, But Is It a Viable 5G Use Case? and South Korea's 5G Lead May Bring Industrial Advantage.)
But there are doubts that 5G is really needed in some of these scenarios. While Vodafone talked up the low-latency attractions of 5G at its holographic demonstration, a signaling delay of 60 milliseconds would not disrupt a holographic call, according to James Crawshaw, a senior analyst with the Heavy Reading market-research business. Where low latency is a requirement, a combination of fiber and WiFi networks might suffice, although there are no latency guarantees with WiFi, Crawshaw notes.
BT's 5G broadcasting service would certainly not require the latency guarantees that come with Release 16, according to Matt Stagg, the operator's sports director of mobile strategy. But that does not mean 4G is good enough, he insists. With 5G's network slicing capabilities, BT would be able to carve out a broadcasting service that always delivers a minimum level of bandwidth. Such guarantees, which 4G cannot provide, will be critical to broadcasters desperate to avoid service disruption.
Remote production for live broadcasting might just be the most compelling, non-consumer 5G use case so far. Stagg certainly thinks so (although he is hardly impartial), and there is clearly a large TV sports market that would see advantages in lower-cost technology and more dynamic coverage. But the opportunity on its own is probably not big enough to be a real game-changer for telcos. Similarly, providing low-bandwidth connectivity for devices such as smart meters and temperature monitors seems unlikely to generate all that much in additional revenues. (See IoT Boom Won't Pay Off for Mobile Operators.)
Concern about 5G progress outside the usual customer setting was in evidence at last week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. After a keynote presentation from Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) CEO Hans Vestberg had focused on how 5G would affect industries such as healthcare, journalism, gaming and video, GlobalData analyst John Byrne said the industry still "has a lot of work to do to get to a lot of the advanced use cases that have been envisioned for 5G." Verizon is hoping to provide some impetus by offering an award of up to $1 million to innovators that come up with new 5G services. (See CES Is Only a 5G Scene-Setter for MWC.)
In the meantime, 5G remains primarily about smartphones, other mobile gadgets and broadband in fiber-deprived communities. It may be essential as rising consumption of Internet services gobbles up space on today's 3G and 4G networks, and some consumers will undoubtedly rush to make use of 5G technology. That will be good news for the makers of consumer gadgets, especially if 5G shortens a device replacement cycle that has recently lengthened. But the experience of 4G suggests that 5G will not boost telco revenues if it is merely an improvement on what came before. Three UK boss Dave Dyson is one top executive to have downplayed the prospect of any 5G sales boost from existing mobile customers. (See Three UK to Go Big on 5G for Home Broadband.)
In this context, technology executives have preferred to champion 5G as a more profitable standard. It will, they say, cost much less to support a 5G connection than a 4G one, bolstering margins. Indeed, Johan Wibergh, the chief technology officer of Vodafone, has previously estimated that 5G will be ten times as cost-efficient as 4G. Others doubt the improvement will be quite as much. But even if Wibergh is right, the spectral efficiency of the technology is unlikely to have a major impact on the bottom line, given all the other moving parts in a telco organization. Automation, which some 5G technologies may facilitate, promises more substantial savings, as staff numbers are whittled down. (See Vodafone CTO: 5G Is Overhyped & It's Mainly About Cost.)
Telcos are under some pressure. Share price movements across the industry suggest investors have not yet bought into the story that 5G will be a big new sales opportunity for operators. One possibility, of course, is that telcos lose out to innovative, fast-moving Internet companies in the 5G business market, much as they are perceived to have done in the consumer world. But if features like network slicing and latency are as important as the telecom industry claims, then operators should be able to profit. Unearthing the viable use cases for a non-consumer 5G deployment must be one of the industry's biggest priorities this year.
— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading