5G race over: how about we start a joint effort to find viable use cases

© Flickr/cc-licence/Alan O'Rourke

© Flickr/cc-licence/Alan O'Rourke

  • Stage one of the ‘race’ to 5G seems to have been won by South Korea
  • But then, this was really a race to the starting, not the finishing line
  • In the next phase rather than more racing for 5G for global domination, how about we hear more about sharing

South Korea seems to have won the fake ‘Race to 5G’ by this week launching what it claims is a nationwide 5G network, having gone live in multiple big cities across the country, and having handsets available to enable the mobile broadband service which, after all, is the objective of the whole thing.

But wait, Verizon is also running around with its jersey pulled over its head in a victory display. It also claims to be first. It has a handset too, but by its own admission it is only launching in two big cities. So nationwide? Not so much.

“Verizon customers will be the first in the world to have the power of 5G in their hands," said Hans Vestberg, Verizon’s chairman and chief executive officer. “This is the latest in our string of 5G firsts. Verizon launched the first commercial broadband 5G service last October, Verizon 5G Home, and now we’re lighting up our 5G Ultra Wideband network in Chicago and Minneapolis, providing the world’s first commercial 5G mobile service with a 5G-enabled smartphone.” (see - Customers in Chicago and Minneapolis are first in the world to get 5G-enabled smartphones connected to a 5G network)

AT&T, of course, claims it already launched last year with its 5GE (actually 4G) services popping up on peoples’ phones to prove it.

South Korea

Despite all the twisted logic to the contrary, and however you define the finish line, South Korea currently looks most deserving for a place on the podium at this stage. Both its big telcos are launching ‘nationwide 5G’ this month and both its big handset vendors are supplying 5G smartphones for the expected demand. The Galaxy S10 smartphone goes on sale on Friday. LG Electronics is aiming its 5G smartphone for sale later this month.

The expectation is that more than 3m South Koreans will switch to 5G (or will find themselves using 5G) by the end of this year, according to KT Corp. And there is considerable government push with the objective of the country becoming a ‘5G powerhouse’. Much talk is heard (as ever) of self-driving cars, virtual and augmented reality and 5G’s ability to bring these nascent use cases alive.

But actually, the better question is, “So what?”  

This is clearly a race with no agreed finish line and no specific qualifications. The only ‘winning’ to be had will be when the technology enables new services that in turn enable companies or individuals to invent new business models or (more likely) apply polish to the ones they already have.

In that context moving your launch a day or two ahead of someone else to ‘win’ or at least secure bragging rights seems ludicrous.

The real effort (let’s not call it a race), as Meredith Attwell Baker, CTIA President and CEO, points out, is arguably just beginning. It will be marked on how effective the subsequent build-out of 5G infrastructure and services are. A few cities and a few hundred cell sites are a good start, but building the tens and hundreds of thousands of cell sites out and then launching new services and accommodating new applications and use cases is where the real value lies.

The CTIA also very much sees a race unfolding, but thinks the “influx of spectrum” being made  available to American telcos over the next five years will propel the US forward and “secure US leadership”.

“We can’t be complacent as the 5G race has really just begun. We must redouble our efforts to combat the 5G ambitions and investments by China and others,”  said Attwell Baker.

So formulating a race to new use cases might be a better use of PR budgets (but let’s not call it a race - let’s call it a joint global effort).

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