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Is 5G going to roll out too little, too early?

Just as 5G appears to be imminently real, both vendors and operators are getting cold feet. All three major network equipment suppliers have recently urged caution about the sharpness of the initial adoption curve. Many ‘5G’ services will start on LTE, said Nokia, while its major rivals have both admitted to concerns over whether the first, earlier-than-expected flurry of roll-outs will prove to be a false dawn, followed by a hiatus before a mass market starts to develop.

Even operators which have driven the first roll-outs to happen earlier than anticipated – earlier than anyone needs them, it can be argued – are trying to manage the expectations of their shareholders and partners. AT&T – which did so much to ensure a subset of the 5G New Radio (NR) standards was fast-tracked, to bring deployment dates forward – is focusing on “five years out” for significant new revenues from 5G, while Verizon is expressing similar sentiments.

This will be worrying to many governments – those which built grand visions around 5G and its potential socio-economic impact, and even invested taxpayers’ money in the platforms. If the MNOs just launch somewhat faster mobile broadband services to the same customers, and try to charge a bit more for them, the dreams of closing the digital divide or bringing connectivity to every industry, railway and city will die.

In planned economies like China, or heavily funded hi-tech industries like South Korea’s, the governments may intervene to ensure that enablers of new service models are supported – industrial specialist service providers, perhaps, or neutral host platforms. But in the USA, Europe and others, the instinct is to let the market do its work, which is difficult if MNOs fail to make strong business cases for the industrial and IoT applications on which many 5G visions rely; and if regulations are not changed to allow non-MNOs, with stronger cases in non-consumer markets, to access spectrum.

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