opinion


5G hype: learning from previous generations

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Telecoms.com periodically invites third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Thomas Neubauer, VP Innovations and Business Development, TEOCO, urges the industry to show restraint when talking up the 5G era.

5G is only just now becoming a reality, and some people are already heartily sick of it—at least, if some articles are to be believed: Headlines such as Don’t fall for the 5G hype, Why Everyone Needs to Shut Up About 5G and even The ‘Race to 5G’ Is Just Mindless Marketing BS show that there is already a lot of skepticism around this new technology.

We don’t have a 5G smartphone on the market yet, and already there’s a 5G backlash. How can people be sick of the hype around a technology that isn’t even here yet?

Tempering expectations

It’s hardly surprising, when the hype around previous mobile generations is taken into consideration. People aren’t burned out by 5G hype. They’re still exhausted by the hype from previous generations. Claims were made around 4G that consumers didn’t see for a long time, and in some cases didn’t see at all. Advertising regulators and even the courts were involved as HSPA+ networks were rebadged as LTE, and wild claims of high speed turned out to be less impressive in practice.

Over-zealous marketing departments are keen to show that their company is the fastest, the biggest, or the first, leading to a rush of announcements before a technology is ready for primetime. With 4G, this marketing push and confusion over what really counted as “4G” got completely out of hand—and the confusion over standards didn’t help. LTE and LTE-A both use OFDMA access technology, so it would make sense that both should be described as 4G. However, the ITU believed that only LTE-A and WiMAX 2 qualified as 4G technologies – which didn’t stop marketing departments describing their LTE networks as 4G. Later, the ITU changed its mind and said that the 4G label applied to “other evolved 3G technologies providing a substantial level of improvement in performance and capabilities”.

Operators essentially had the go-ahead to label any network better than standard 3G as 4G—and why would they choose not to? With rivals claiming to have 4G networks, sticking scrupulously to a 3G label meant offering, in the eyes of the customer, an inferior product.

But once bitten, twice shy: consumers presented with a new upgrade that failed to wow them the last time around are less likely to fall for the same trick twice. Operators and smartphone vendors need to be very careful in how they announce their networks and new devices. If early adopters buy in to the 5G label and do not receive the speeds they are promised, the word of mouth will be that this is just 4G all over again.

There is real opportunity for operators in 5G, enabling new use cases, new services and new streams of revenue. But what consumers care about is speed and availability. The marketing of 5G needs to be smarter with its message.

Marketing 5G to consumers—or not

The biggest opportunities that 5G makes possible aren’t easily communicated with a message that simply says that it’s the first in the market, has the most coverage, or is the fastest, or has the lowest latency. The real question is: what are the use cases the customers will value?

Network slicing, for instance, has great potential, creating multiple end-to-end virtual networks than run on top of a physical network. These networks can be tuned for specific needs, for example for IoT applications, or for connected vehicles. Network slicing will not be part of the first 5G networks deployed—we still have at least a couple of years to go before it will become a reality.

These will fall flat if they are marketed directly to consumers. The knowledge that there is a network slice dedicated to their specific needs will be compelling to a service provider or enterprise customer but won’t be of interest to the end consumer.

5G home broadband is also a potential killer application. Verizon’s 5G Home service is already available as a wireless alternative to fixed home broadband, making it possible to get similar speeds as a fixed line but without the need for the same infrastructure around and leading to the home. At this point in time, this is a use case that’s specific to the US, due to the cost of broadband and the spectrum available. Home wireless broadband has the potential to be better value for money and help service providers retain customers through bundled deals. But it’s not yet clear if marketing home broadband as a 5G technology will be effective or just confusing.

The same goes for IoT. Proponents of 5G networks often see IoT networks as a use case. But proponents of IoT see 5G as just one potential technology of many. For now, only very few IoT use cases need 5G, though that may change when 5G makes possible ultra-low latency. Even then, it’s edge computing rather than 5G that will have the biggest effect, and even then It’s certainly not something that’s going to get consumers excited any time soon.

This could lead operators into the same trap as before, selling their networks as the fastest/best/first.

The answer may be that 5G should not be marketed to consumers—at least, not in the same way that 4G was. Earlier this year, Telecoms.com reported early that consumers aren’t really interested in 5G—so why force them to care?

Instead of hyping 5G networks, the mobile industry should instead hype—if it must hype anything—5G services and the superior use cases made possible by this technology. 5G is not revolutionary because it’s faster, but because of what it makes possible, such as mobile VR, self-driving vehicles, industrial automation, smart cities, and more.

A 5G network is more than just a faster network. To promote it as such and to only boast about new rollouts and being the first to market is a disservice to the technology. And with few people interested in this new generation of technology—or even deeply skeptical—the best move could be not to market “5G”, but instead market the value it will bring without referring to 5G at all.

 

Thomas_NeubauerThomas is Vice President of Business Development & Innovations for TEOCO. Thomas was the founder and Managing Director of Symena, acquired by AIRCOM. AIRCOM was subsequently acquired by TEOCO in December 2013. Thomas Neubauer has more than eleven years of experience with automatic cell planning (ACP) and mathematical optimization. He holds a Ph.D. in telecommunications engineering from the Vienna University of Technology.

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