Peter Prodromou & RJ Bardsley
Peter Prodromou (L) and RJ Bardsley co-authored this article.

The promise of 5G is bright: it offers a host of possibilities for the world in everything from medicine to autonomous vehicles to entertainment. Indeed, it’s the talk of the technology world these days. So far in 2018, both major industry trade shows — CES and MWC — highlighted a number of advances in 5G technologies. It seemed you could hardly move without bumping into a sign regarding the latest promise of unfettered access and a super-fast IoT. In the U.S., AT&T and Verizon have both announced the rollout of 5G networks in 2018, and while they haven’t given specifics around speeds, they have likened performance to wired networks and promised vast improvements over 4G LTE -products.

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A cloudy horizon

So, what will life on 5G be like? Greater speeds and greater bandwidth mean that things like remote medical operations will be possible; instant super-high-def entertainment will be an everyday occurrence; fully functioning driverless cars and maybe even aircraft will be the norm. It also opens up the door for a host of less dramatic but still impressive feats: massive enhancements to the Internet of Things that will result in new levels of connectivity. But perhaps the true promise of 5G is how it could change the very fabric of innovation. The increase and speed and bandwidth that 5G brings is so critical that it has the potential to alter the way we design everything from apps to networks to operating rooms.

To provide some context for 5G speeds, the average internet speed in the U.S. today is 6.5 megabytes per second. At MWC last year, Samsung showed off a new 5G router with speeds of 500 megabytes per second (4 gigabits per second). This is the equivalent of moving from an economy driven by horses and steam engines to one driven by internal combustion and jet engines. At the turn of the last century, we lived in a world designed around horses; everything from public space to grocery lists changed with the move into advanced modes of transportation. It’s not impossible to comprehend the scale of potential change, but it is a little challenging to imagine exactly what new things will come to pass in a world of innovation powered by 5G.

The clouds

However, there’s a significant distance between hype and reality around 5G today. As Semiconductor Engineering EIC, Ed Sperling recently wrote, “5G is coming, but not everywhere and not all at once, and not the fastest version of this technology right away.” While the 5G promise is out there and the commitments from giants like Huawei, AT&T, and Verizon are solid evidence that a 5G world will come to pass, there are still several challenges that need to be solved before it becomes a reality.

Technical challenges start with reception issues. 5G signals run at high frequency, which means that trees, shrubs, buildings, cars, even people can disrupt the signal. This leads to the need for a larger physical footprint for base stations, repeaters and small cells to establish reliable access. It also means that the rollout will take a lot longer and require more investment than previous 3G and 4G LTE rollouts.

The need for backward compatibility and the ability to process much more data at faster speeds also requires close collaboration between a variety of segments in the technology industry, from networks to chip makers to device manufacturers.

Even at the device level, 5G technology is still coming into its own. Issues from antenna efficacy to battery drain pose new challenges for device makers. The handoff from older networks to newer ones will have to be seamless, and the 20-plus hour battery life that consumers have come to expect must remain table stakes in the mobile market.

Finally, at the political level, different countries are vying to own 5G in ways that we didn’t see in earlier network evolutions, at least not so publicly. The truth about 5G is its development relies on a global ecosystem of partners. If governments implement protectionist policies to help boost a single country’s advantage in 5G, it’s likely that the exact opposite will happen.

Dreaming about what’s next

The technical, financial and political problems will be solved by different camps. What remains after those solutions are found is the biggest challenge of all: how to reinvent the way we dream. There are better words than “dreaming.” After all, dreaming is something for children and poets, not telcos and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Or is it? 5G will change our world: it will bring the IoT, mobility, the auto industry, medicine, education and AI forward in new and fantastic ways. What’s left for people to do is to reimagine what we can invent and how we can apply this to less agnostic challenges we face today. For instance, how will we use 5G technology to solve poverty? How will we use it to improve privacy? Safeguard human rights? Secure IP? Prevent theft? Ensure personal freedoms?

We’re not sure about you, but we don’t read a lot of these issues when we read about 5G. Perhaps that’s really where we’re falling down. Don’t get us wrong, we’re excited about the prospect of downloading a high-def movie in less than a minute, but if we’re truly looking at the horizon of a new technology this big and this far-reaching, shouldn’t we be thinking of solving more than the technical challenges of today?


Peter Prodromou is president and CEO of Racepoint Global and RJ Bardsley is chief strategist of Racepoint Global’s Global Tech Practice.