Is 5G Dead?


As we leave behind this year's Mobile World Congress, let's rewind to five years ago. Do you remember the buzz? "5G is going to change everything!" Dubbed the technological savior for enterprise communications, 5G promised a revolution, not just another incremental upgrade.

Between 2018 and 2019, the mobile industry tried pushing Rich Communications Services (RCS) to counter the threat of free OTA services like WeChat, WhatsApp, and Skype. There was also a big push to combine a wide variety of new features into a brave new world covered by a colossal umbrella called "5G."

While the industry worked together to bring genuine technological innovations in new radio, service network architectures, and diverse spectrums to users, there was also a marketing push to brand "5G" as a panacea for communications of all kinds.

It was not just RCS; a whole series of new concepts and buzzwords such as Cloud-AR/VR/XR, Network Slicing, Disaggregated RAN, and NPN (Non-Private Networks) – were all built into 5G technology, with the vision to change enterprise and industry connectivity. From IoT to Wi-Fi, public and private networks, this new miracle technology had your needs covered.

But this didn't happen.

That was the promise of 5G, a technological revolution that was supposed to change our lives. Today, five years later, we can't help but feel a Barcelona-sized sense of disillusionment. The reality of 5G has fallen short of the hype.

This isn't all pessimistic. Yes, 5G (mostly) brought us some lightning-fast speeds and ultra-low latency — enough to keep us connected through a global pandemic — but it hasn't entirely lived up to the revolutionary expectations.  

So, as we sift through the marketing and face the realities, it's time to ask: was all the hype around 5G justified, and where do we go from here?

The Unfulfilled Promise

Introduced with much fanfare around 2017, 5G was expected to unlock new verticals and use cases. The primary new feature behind the technology, 5G-NR, was rushed through the following year. The mobile industry started to make big promises, particularly after a relatively low-key 4G/LTE interregnum for mobile networks.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the promise of 5G seemed like a beacon of hope when the world grappled with unprecedented changes. As work migrated from offices to homes, reliable, high-speed connectivity became more critical than ever. This was the moment for 5G to shine, step up, and revolutionize our lives and work. The tech that was supposed to catapult us into the future struggled to get off the ground amidst a pandemic that should have been its moment to shine.

Much-touted technologies enabled by 5G, from autonomous vehicles to remote surgeries, remain mainly in the realm of the future. The expected surge in revenues for companies banking on 5G hasn't materialized, leaving us questioning the true potential of this technology.

The Reliance on Legacy

Even as 5G was being touted as the next big thing, the world continued to rely heavily on 3G and LTE for private networking. The availability of private small cells and networks on Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) hardware presented an opportunity for a smooth transition to 5G. Yet, this opportunity was missed by most of the telecoms industry, which had to divert expenditure away from standalone 5G networks to converged LTE solutions.

Though we're getting used to seeing 5G as the connected icon on our phones on public networks, most private networks deployed have almost always been LTE at best and connected through a converged 3G/4G core network. Industrial devices were almost always 4G by default, keeping with IMSI identification (international mobile subscriber identity used since early 2G networks) instead of a SUPI (the more modern, private, and secure identity equivalent for 5G networks). The promise of a 5G-powered world remained elusive, and the trust and belief in this new technology began to wane. Looking back, it's clear that the promise of 5G was oversold and underdelivered. Pandemic apart, the timings and technology were ill-communicated (by 5g vendors? By carriers?).

The Fulfilled (and unfulfilled) Promises

In the early days, 5G technology lived up to some of its promises. It brought about faster data speeds, lower latency, and the ability to connect more devices simultaneously. These advancements brought new potential to some targeted industries, such as transportation, logistics, ports, and mines. While still not the world-changing revolution that was promised, early 5G delivered a hugely significant societal change essential for a connected workplace during the pandemic, truly enabling the "infinite enterprise."

Why did this happen? The cadence of technology evolution has matured, and everyone outside of the halls of Fira Gran Via has moved beyond the 'G' labels. Interestingly, the Wi-Fi industry has learned the opposite, introducing Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 7 as complete, end-to-end changes for the entire ecosystem. The cellular standards bodies, of course, use something similar. R17, R18, and R19 might not roll off the tongue, but without each, true convergence of mobile networks and enterprise wireless cannot happen (another promise sold as '5G', but was impossible in R15 back in 2017). We need to recognize that the future of connectivity is not just about the 'G' but about a holistic approach encompassing a range of technologies and solutions.

Despite its initial success, 5G has had its share of failures. For example, the promise of radio slicing and private networks like CBRS has largely fallen flat. These technologies, which were expected to revolutionize private networking, have remained confined to small proof-of-concepts and niche applications. The private networking spectrum has become isolated islands of deployment, and the larger markets have kept the majority of it for public network enterprise use, often backfilling holes in their macro networks. Radio and Network slicing got lost in the operators' pitches to industry to open their networks. In reality, we were waiting for device semiconductors to catch up and costs to come down. Meanwhile, 3G and LTE remain the go-to technologies for private networking. The reliance on these older technologies underscores that 5G, for all its hype, has not yet become the dominant force it was expected to be.

The Overselling Consequence

The tech world's obsession with the "next big thing" has often led us to overpromise. We frequently get caught up in the hype of new technologies, promising more than we can deliver. This sets unrealistic expectations and leads to disappointment when the technology fails to live up to the hype. As industry professionals, we must exhibit greater discernment. We must distinguish between gradual technological advancements and the initial hype that generates quick sales and fuels the fear of missing out (FOMO), only to lose its appeal over time. As professionals in the communications industry, it is our responsibility to not only sell technology but also to provide solutions that truly enhance value for our customers and not just push futuristic concepts.

Looking Forward

Looking ahead, 5G technology remains vibrant and dynamic from an external perspective, although some parts of the industry are pushing 5.5G as a new umbrella brand to complimentary 3GPP technologies. 5G embodies the culmination of extensive standards work and decades of advancement, simplifying comprehension for the general public and innovators. However, it stands on the brink of obsolescence as a marketing label.

Our approach to introducing novel technologies must be deliberate as we forge ahead. In this age of rapid AI-driven transformations, our industry must emphasize the tangible benefits while maintaining transparency with our customers and partners. Our mission is to ignite inspiration rather than monotony and avoid excessive hype. As we eagerly await what lies beyond, let's prioritize precision, delivering genuine value, and fostering authentic enthusiasm for the future of technology.

Posted In
About the Author
Brendan Bonner
Innovation Lead, Office of the CTO

Brendan Bonner is a member of the OCTO team. He is a telecoms industry veteran with 25 years at the cutting edge of innovation in mobile & fixed networks.

Full Bio