5G: a debased currency, probably for the best

How does the new 5G smartphone in my hand relate to the sunlit visions of 5G that I hear from politicians, the media and lobbyists? If 5G is our portal to a future of smart cities, smart factories and even a smart society, how does that begin with this shiny new device that, if I’m lucky, can download data at close to 1Gbps? (ten times faster than my tired old 4G phone that now sits idle).

There is no real linkage of course. The uplifting visions of tech-enabled prosperity, contentment and efficiency may or may not be realised in the decades ahead.  If they are realised, then the elegant and potent architecture of the ‘5G Core’ may well be the foundation stone, running fully virtualised on an invisible web of datacentres.  However, my new 5G phone is many, many rungs below this on the ladder of technology progress.  It will be in landfill long before this sublime new architecture is in place. It will almost certainly never connect to even the most basic 5G Core, unless I’m in China.

If I’m less lucky then my new 5G phone may not download any faster than my old 4G phone. I may have to become a speed test obsessive, anxious to prove that 80Mbps on 5G beats the 60Mbps that I used to get with 4G on that street corner at that time of day.  More likely I will just realise that I was pretty happy with 60Mbps – and, hey, it’s a great new phone – just enjoy it!

Some of us won’t even need to pay up for a new phone. The ‘4G’ icon on the screen will just flip to ‘5G’ – or perhaps ‘5G e’ or ‘5Gish’. Result! (and no need to become a speed test obsessive – your download speed will not have changed, and it will still be perfectly adequate most of the time).

The widespread debasement of ‘5G’ may seem a shame – particularly to engineers.  The standardisation and development of 5G (as a set of radio and core technologies) is a truly astonishing achievement that should be celebrated and honoured. To see these technologies launched in the wrong spectrum bands (for political spinning and marketing advantage) or simply mislabelled (to mislead consumers) can be upsetting. To hear visionary 5G nonsense spouted by politicians who know little about technology, and next to nothing about wireless networks, is also upsetting. (Engineers grow used to this – but it still grates every time, I’m told).

However, this rapid and comprehensive debasement of 5G is probably for the best.  The quicker that ‘5G’ can leave the spotlight, the sooner it can resume its real role as a useful toolkit for networking progress. If it’s clear that consumers are confused about 5G – particularly over ‘do I have it yet?’ – then marketeers and politicians will soon turn away to other hooks and soundbites. The telecoms industry can then resume ‘business as usual’ – how to combine spectrum, sites and technology to serve ever-growing demand for connectivity at ever-lower unit costs. The sooner the better!

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