5G is being massively overhyped

The noise around 5G is deafening, mostly driven by vendors and industry associations. Yet there are growing signs of doubt, especially for mainstream deployment and use, beyond some headline-grabbing first moves.

Ultimately 5G will be important, but despite the rhetoric it is evolutionary, not revolutionary.

Almost no networks will be all-5G for many years, if ever. Full deployment could take a decade or more, especially in remote areas and inside buildings. This means that any supposed 5G use-cases must also work on 4G, WiFi, or offline completely when outside coverage.

We may see small, well-defined areas with perfect (& dependable) 5G coverage — but any application or device developer will need to have a fallback strategy anyway. A remote-controlled drone or surgical robot may be safety-critical and will need a contingency if something goes wrong.

This means that non-critical uses of 5G will come to market first. Fixed-wireless broadband will be used in certain places — but despite the hype, obviously won’t displace fibre or cable at scale. (Apart from anything else, 5G small cells will need fibre backhaul — and the other 100 or 1000 fibres in the duct will be installed for other broadband users).

Adding extra capacity for normal mobile broadband from smartphones will be the main business-case. 5G should enable greater throughput density in busy areas, with more efficient antennas, better spectrum-aggregation, and higher modulation. We will see headlines about “Gigabit wireless”, but it’s more about cell-edge performance and the ability to cope with busy areas.

There may be some ultra-low latency applications, but they will be very localised — and may be run on private cellular networks rather than those implemented by traditional mobile carriers.

“Massive IoT” will be slow to emerge, as 4G NB-IoT is only being deployed now & won’t be replaced in 2 years’ time. Network slicing is not a panacea — it will be an internal tool for the MNOs to begin with, not exposed to users or developers or “verticals”.

So sit back & relax. We’ve got years of 5G hyperbole ahead, partly to support a spectrum land-grab by the MNOs.

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