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5G’s Disparity Between Promise and Reality

March 27, 2024
It’s time to grudgingly admit that 5G has been overhyped and underdelivered. Why has it not fulfilled its promise?

This blog is part of the TechXchange: 5G Infrastructure.

We’ve been told for several years now that 5G technology is going to change everything about our interconnected digital lives. There’s been reams of editorializing about it, particularly about mmWave 5G and how it will deliver insanely fast connectivity with minuscule latency. I’ve been as guilty of that as anyone among industry observers.

Certainly, 5G has been a moneymaker for service providers. One market report estimates the global value of the 5G services market at $121.8B in 2023 and projected at $1,002.3T by 2028. From those market numbers, one might extrapolate that 5G is ubiquitous and successfully bearing out its early promise.

Sadly, though, the reality is different from what the hype promised, and its past time to reckon with that reality. As of today, 5G hasn’t been the game-changing technology envisioned for enterprises. But why not?

For one thing, coming as it did during the pandemic, the rollout took forever and is still ongoing in much of the world. Even where rollout has been reasonably successful, such as in India (165M users between the top two carriers), monetization lags due to the lack of truly compelling use cases for 5G.

Here in the United States, a big difference exists between what 5G users were being sold and what they got. Verizon, which spent some $45B on spectrum when the FCC auctioned licenses in 2021, touted mmWave 5G as the “be all, end all” of connectivity. Of course, mmWave 5G delivers extremely high data rates, but it was quickly revealed to be too limited in range for many use cases in which it would be beneficial.

The infrastructure buildout itself has proved more difficult, time-consuming, and expensive than carriers bargained for. Urban and suburban regions require a great deal of equipment for adequate coverage. It’s going to be a while before carriers get rural areas fully built out, as the return on investment (ROI) will suffer.

If you look at the history of rollouts for successive generations of cellular technologies, it’s fair to say that the odd-numbered generations have fared rather poorly in terms of ROI. For millions of cellular users, 4G is still the best bet—sometimes 4G data rates are faster than low-band 5G rates anyway. It could well be that 5G suffers the same fate as did 1G and 3G, serving as placeholders until technology matured in the 2G and 4G eras. If you’re waiting for a 6G bailout, please don’t hold your breath.

Read more articles in the TechXchange: 5G Infrastructure.

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