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The 5G quest for the killer use case – Does it exist?

Marcus Burton Architect, Cloud Technology Published 24 May 2022

First off, my apologies for glomming onto the “killer use case” phrase in the title. I don’t like the phrase, so I want to challenge the assumption that 5G needs a killer use case whatsoever. My conviction is that the question itself is the wrong question. To that end, the point of this blog is simply this: there is no killer use case driving 5G, and that’s a good thing. No killer use case is necessary. 5G is a decade-long plodding iteration of a giant connectivity ecosystem.

You can frame other technology sectors in the same way—is there a killer use case driving cloud computing? Or artificial intelligence (AI)? Internet of Things (IoT)? I think not. There are hundreds of use cases that collectively make each sector a thriving industry of development. That is what makes them meaningful.

Increasingly, I consider 5G to be less of a technology and more of a timespan of the cellular sector. 5G is an aggregation of many little evolutions that collectively solve many problems and pave the way for many connected solutions. Some of these solutions are known (or assumed without merit, like metaverse), and some are unknown. We should stop framing the 5G adoption timeline differently and potentially stop expecting single specific use cases to instigate mass adoption. Mass will build with time.

I think the “killer use case” question is just the wrong question, because 5G is too big to be about one thing. 5G is already about many things:

  • Connecting IT devices in hard-to-serve areas, like large outdoor spaces (airports, shipping yards, transportation hubs, etc.)
  • Better service in ultra-dense environments like stadiums
  • In-building coverage for neutral host services (replacing DAS)
  • Separating critical IT workflows (point of sale, communications, mobile scanners) from Wi-Fi networks
  • Fixed wireless as a tertiary (or even primary) option for small businesses or branches
  • Replacing legacy communication and industrial connectivity systems

You could ask about specific use cases for specific cellular iterations. For example, “Why do we need to improve from 25ms to 10ms latency?” Or “Why improve from 10ms to 5ms?” Or “Why do we need 1ms?” These questions might seem very tedious and specific, but businesses must ask these precise questions to determine whether 5G is necessary for them or whether LTE (or other alternatives) is still good enough.

Along those lines of thinking, I tend to think of 5G as a giant collection of evolutions. And only if you put on your 10-year glasses can you make the argument that 5G approximates a revolution. But ten years is a very long time, and telecoms will shift dramatically by the year 2030. In terms of modern digital capabilities, if a technology industry does not revolutionize (radically) in a decade (i.e., the 5G era), something may be fundamentally wrong with it.

Here’s why. Moore’s Law is slowing, whereas distributed/cloud computing and software capabilities are speeding up. Powerful technology stacks are becoming both more accessible and more sophisticated, which drives a compound impact on the pace of development. For that reason, we now live in a technology universe full of never-ending revolutions. Change or die. That is the game.

Adjacent revolutions (IoT, analytics, mobile, cloud, and maybe augmented or virtual reality) require much more from networks. But they are also offering more to networks and their operators:

  • More capabilities at the device edge (so the network doesn’t need to carry all that traffic),
  • More automation (to make scaling easier)
  • More analytics and AI toolsets (to extract insights, operating diagnostics, and monetization)
  • More sophisticated software (that makes cloud-native 5G possible at lower costs)

The telecom industry is revolutionizing, as you can see from the focus on hyperscaler engagements in the last two years. And yes, the world needs 5G to deliver more than 4G (faster, cheaper, denser, and lower latency). But, for the end-users, today’s 5G is just another iterative step beyond yesterday’s 4G. Tomorrow’s 5G is another plodding step forward from today. Just another G, as the hashtag says. A little bit faster here, a little better density there. Year after year…after year.

Bill Gates reminds us that a lot can change in 10 years. Small continuous evolution may not be sexy. Iterative progress in telecom lacks bravado. Baby steps lack flash. But, over 10 years, it will add up to a revolution. 5G is essential for moving our connected world forward, and iterative steps will have to do. It will have to do, because “sexy” and “telecom” don’t fit in the same sentence.

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