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Busting the 5G Myth: mobile users want mega-consistency not gigabits


via Flickr © dno1967b (CC BY 2.0)

  • Gigabit speeds for 5G not wanted by users
  • WiFi can and increasingly does do the indoor heavy lifting
  • So what users want is consistent mobile data, available (just about) everywhere

Professor William Webb, deputy chair at Cambridge Wireless, CEO of Weightless,  general all-round wireless communications and regulatory expert  (spent seven years with UK regulator, Ofcom) and not least a seasoned interviewee on TelecomTV, late last year published a book entitled ‘The 5G Myth’.

Nobody will be surprised to learn that the mobile technology ‘Gs’ have always had their detractors. They were around with 2G; they were certainly on the loose (with ample reason) for 3G which is now broadly acknowledged as a disaster in its early days (from a business point of view) and was only rescued by the smartphone and the internet. LTE (which is really just a capacity ramp for 3G) has fared better, although even it hasn’t spawned all the wonderful new applications that we were assured would surely follow from its launch.  

Now we are heading towards 5G, although we’re not exactly sure what it is, what new applications it will serve and when it will arrive.

There is much to criticise about 5G and there are plenty of people out there straining to do so (we’ve heard quite a lot of it over the past couple of years), but rather than join the 5G Jeremiah chorus, William Webb has a compelling critique and a positive view on what the core mission of a sensible 5G might be…  so not so much  ‘5G is a Myth’ as ‘5G flawed but fixable’.

Essentially, he thinks the idea of finding a radio technology capable of delivering a gigabit to each user is a waste of time for the foreseeable future. In fact current mobile data speeds are more than adequate for all foreseeable uses, he maintains. Already, data growth is slowing and may plateau around 2027, with only around 2x growth occurring during the 5G era. Users don’t want or need vast speeds on new, fragile frequency bands -  they want the sort of upper-end speeds currently being delivered by 4G but just much more consistently.  

So next gen development  should look at enhanced coverage in a number of known problematic locations such as trains or rural areas.  A great communications system, he maintains,  is one available everywhere, all the time with minimal congestion and at low cost. If the focus of 5G could be switched in this direction that would provide a new generation worth having.

So why has the 5G mission been blown so wildly off-course?

Much of the problem, William says, is that the vision of what’s required for next generation cellular seems to have lost touch with the reality of usage patterns and user behaviour.

“The fact is that in the UK and in other countries, we’ve gradually been making more use of WiFi. My guess is that about 95 per cent  of all our traffic is now WiFi and most people have a ‘WiFi first’ (use cellular only when WiFi isn’t available) behaviour pattern.

“The regulators, however, spend most of their time on thinking about cellular  - but in the consumer market,  that’s not where the action is.”

“I think we need a fundamental rethink of the whole communications environment -  instead of thinking that competition comes from the four main operators (in the case of UK), we should  take a broader look. The competition comes from a mix of WiFi and multiple operators providing connectivity to the home, the business, the public space and so on - all providing an ecosystem that needs to work nicely together.“

So, he says, indoor high speed data coverage will increasingly be WiFi and self-provided (at home or at work) or amenity based, with cellular picking up where the WiFi signal drops off. That seems unlikely to change - so looking at just one part (the cellular part) in isolation is going to lead to bad results.

One other important mission for 5G might be the delivery of IoT nationwide alongside the delivery of the “consistent connectivity”. That,  he judges, would be appreciated by almost all mobile phone and Internet users.

Part of the reason for writing the book, said William, is to see if people in the industry can step back and think carefully about the current 5G direction. The book was published eight weeks ago and, he told me, so far he hadn’t had any vociferous push-back from enraged 5G enthusiasts. He takes that as a good sign. The book is available on Amazon. Search ‘5G Myth’.

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