New Zealand’s mobile carriers are keen to talk about 5G mobile. Telecommunications equipment makers are even keener to talk about it. They have more to gain in the short term. It’s possible they have more to gain in the long term too.
The next generation of mobile technology promises a lot. The promises depend on who you listen to and who they talk to. Sometimes the promises overlap, sometimes they don’t.
There is a good reason why 5G promoters send mixed messages: the technology aims at distinct markets. Each market has different needs. Each wants to hear a different set of promises.
5G mobile selling point
For users on the move, the most important selling point is blistering fast mobile broadband. The technology promises users abundant bandwidth to deliver streaming high resolution video and huge amounts of data.
This is perhaps the most oversold promise of all.
While there’s always a case for more bandwidth, you don’t need to move up a generation to get faster mobile broadband.
In 2016 Spark demonstrated 4.5G delivering 1.15 Gbps. Huawei told me 4.5G can go all the way to 6 Gbps. Some other reports mention higher 4.5G speeds.
Let’s put this in perspective. You need 15 to 20 Mbps to watch streaming 4K movies on Netflix. There are few applications that need more bandwidth.
Even the most demanding virtual reality apps might only use three or four times that. Wearing a headset and wandering through a virtual world might not a good idea if you are actually mobile.
Of course other apps may yet emerge to use faster phone data speeds. You have to ask yourself if it is wise investing in an expensive mobile phone network upgrade when no-one has a clue what it might be used for. For the foreseeable future 4.5G has all the bandwidth most mobile users can use.
Fixed wireless 5G
There is a better case for upgrading fixed wireless broadband networks. Fifth generation cellular promises those customers fibre-like speeds. It is possible if carriers have more bandwidth to play with they could offer higher data caps than today.
In New Zealand, fixed wireless broadband is often sold as an alternative to fibre for people with less demanding internet needs. Building a 5G network needs a huge investment. Carriers will struggle to get a return on investment by increasing fixed wireless broadband charges. If anything competition from fibre networks means they are under pressure to lower prices.
Internet of things customers are another target market. They expect to see a trickle of data beamed to and from thousands, even millions of devices. For these customers, speed is rarely the main consideration. On the other hand, some will want the density of coverage promised by 5G. Some IoT apps need 5G’s promised low latency.
At the time of writing there are four main IoT networks in New Zealand. 5G will give carriers and customers many more options. This is the most likely application to pay for the new network build, but squeezing out a return on investment when the nation is already awash in IoT networks won’t be easy.
5G’s low latency is vital for two specific user groups: driverless vehicles and robotics. Or as they say in the industry: these are the key “use cases” for 5G. Most likely these technologies will fuel demand for new networks. Although it is possible both may be further away from everyday use than the industry tells us.
Put that down to hype.