5G: Bridging hype, reality and future promises

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What should telcos do to bridge the gaps between current hype, actual performance, and future promises on 5G? We argue that a data-driven and forensic approach to roll-out and marketing will be the key, particularly in the uncertain economic environment driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, and review the timelines for future applications.

The 5G situation seems paradoxical

People in China and South Korea are buying 5G phones by the million, far more than initially expected, yet many western telcos are moving cautiously. Will your company also find demand? What’s the smart strategy while uncertainty remains? What actions are needed to lead in the 5G era? What questions must be answered?

New data requires new thinking. STL Partners 5G strategies: Lessons from the early movers presented the situation in late 2019, and in What will make or break 5G growth? we outlined the key drivers and inhibitors for 5G growth. This follow on report addresses what needs to happen next.

The report is informed by talks with executives of over three dozen companies and email contacts with many more, including 21 of the first 24 telcos who have deployed. This report covers considerations for the next three years (2020–2023) based on what we know today.

“Seize the 5G opportunity” says Ke Ruiwen, Chairman, China Telecom, and Chinese reports claimed 14 million sales by the end of 2019. Korea announced two million subscribers in July 2019 and by December 2019 approached five million. By early 2020, The Korean carriers were confident 30% of the market will be using 5G by the end of 2020. In the US, Verizon is selling 5G phones even in areas without 5G services,  With nine phone makers looking for market share, the price in China is US$285–$500 and falling, so the handset price barrier seems to be coming down fast.

Yet in many other markets, operators progress is significantly more tentative. So what is going on, and what should you do about it?

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5G technology works OK

22 of the first 24 operators to deploy are using mid-band radio frequencies.

Vodafone UK claims “5G will work at average speeds of 150–200 Mbps.” Speeds are typically 100 to 500 Mbps, rarely a gigabit. Latency is about 30 milliseconds, only about a third better than decent 4G. Mid-band reach is excellent. Sprint has demonstrated that simply upgrading existing base stations can provide substantial coverage.

5G has a draft business case now: people want to buy 5G phones. New use cases are mostly years away but the prospect of better mobile broadband is winning customers. The costs of radios, backhaul, and core are falling as five system vendors – Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia, Samsung, and ZTE – fight for market share. They’ve shipped over 600,000 radios. Many newcomers are gaining traction, for example Altiostar won a large contract from Rakuten and Mavenir is in trials with DT.

The high cost of 5G networks is an outdated myth. DT, Orange, Verizon, and AT&T are building 5G while cutting or keeping capex flat. Sprint’s results suggest a smart build can quickly reach half the country without a large increase in capital spending. Instead, the issue for operators is that it requires new spending with uncertain returns.

The technology works, mostly. Mid-band is performing as expected, with typical speeds of 100–500Mbps outdoors, though indoor performance is less clear yet. mmWave indoor is badly degraded. Some SDN, NFV, and other tools for automation have reached the field. However, 5G upstream is in limited use. Many carriers are combining 5G downstream with 4G upstream for now. However, each base station currently requires much more power than 4G bases, which leads to high opex. Dynamic spectrum sharing, which allows 5G to share unneeded 4G spectrum, is still in test. Many features of SDN and NFV are not yet ready.

So what should companies do? The next sections review go-to-market lessons, status on forward-looking applications, and technical considerations.

Early go-to-market lessons

Don’t oversell 5G

The continuing publicity for 5G is proving powerful, but variable. Because some customers are already convinced they want 5G, marketing and advertising do not always need to emphasise the value of 5G. For those customers, make clear why your company’s offering is the best compared to rivals’. However, the draw of 5G is not universal. Many remain sceptical, especially if their past experience with 4G has been lacklustre. They – and also a minority swayed by alarmist anti-5G rhetoric – will need far more nuanced and persuasive marketing.

Operators should be wary of overclaiming. 5G speed, although impressive, currently has few practical applications that don’t already work well over decent 4G. Fixed home broadband is a possible exception here. As the objective advantages of 5G in the near future are likely to be limited, operators should not hype features that are unrealistic today, no matter how glamorous. If you don’t have concrete selling propositions, do image advertising or use happy customer testimonials.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • 5G technology works OK
  • Early go-to-market lessons
    • Don’t oversell 5G
    • Price to match the experience
    • Deliver a valuable product
    • Concerns about new competition
    • Prepare for possible demand increases
    • The interdependencies of edge and 5G
  • Potential new applications
    • Large now and likely to grow in the 5G era
    • Near-term applications with possible major impact for 5G
    • Mid- and long-term 5G demand drivers
  • Technology choices, in summary
    • Backhaul and transport networks
    • When will 5G SA cores be needed (or available)?
    • 5G security? Nothing is perfect
    • Telco cloud: NFV, SDN, cloud native cores, and beyond
    • AI and automation in 5G
    • Power and heat