It’s that time again, the time when we start preparing for a new technology (5G) just as we’re really getting into the flow of using the previous one (4G). And, as always happens, the skeptical questions come flooding in. “What could 5G be used for?” “Who would use so much bandwidth?” “It’s going to cost a lot to roll out…How can I guarantee that it will be worth it?”
I’m going to take a crack at these questions by looking at our past rather than by talking about future technology.To begin with, I remember (and you probably do, too) when 3G was being rolled out. 2G had been a huge success for voice, but WAP and GPRS, were, well, less than compelling. I remember seeing my first WAP screen in 2000, for looking up movie times, and it was so incredibly slow and painful to use that if anyone had told me that I was truly looking at the future I would have laughed out loud. But I was looking at the future. And it turned out that even though you could do a little internetty stuff on 2G, the real strength of 2G was voice. It took 3G to unlock the full power of being able to access the internet directly on a device in your hand.
“What on earth do we need this for?”
Fast forward a few years: 3G has now been readily established everywhere, and the time came to start planning 4G networks. “What on earth do we need this for? We’ve already got everything we need with 3G!” were the cries at the time. And it turns out that while we had talked about using 3G for video streaming, it was actually pretty bad at that. The real strength of 3G was in enabling good-enough internet browsing and apps, but we had to wait for 4G in order for the YouTube wave to engulf us all.
And now here we are, with 4G well established in most markets and video streaming so popular that the average monthly usage at one operator I met recently, who offers a home router with unlimited 4G, is 90 GB/month, most of it streamed entertainment. Confirmed: 4G turned out to be for video.
Now it’s time for 5G, and the same questions about what it could possibly be used for that we heard at the dawn of the 3G and 4G eras are being raised. It seems pretty simple to me – if you build it, they will come. Just as 3G enabled the browsing that 2G was terrible at, and 4G enabled the video streaming that 3G struggled with, 5G will enable the things that we avoid in 4G because the network can’t support it well. One of the most logical candidates in the consumer spaces today would be Augmented Reality, which really does demand very high bandwidth and incredibly low latency to keep what you see in sync with your quick head movements. (For example, have you seen independent developer Abhishek Singh’s AR Super Mario game in Central Park? How cool is that!!) And of course there are amazing changes that we foresee in the industrial space, as ultra-low latency enables seamless human-machine interaction, which will unleash all kinds of innovations we can’t imagine today.
Just my opinion of course… And yes, our industry was repeatedly wrong about Video Call becoming the Killer App at multiple points along this journey. But looking back, the clear lesson is that if you boost the power of what we can do with our airwaves and devices, we humans will figure out something to do with it, that will in a surprisingly short period of time, become something we suddenly can’t live without.
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