What Will Drive 5G Apps? History Suggests We Don't Really Know

Nobody can say for sure what future fifth generation network (5G) mobile standards will look like. More significantly, nobody yet can predict how “value” will occur. Some emphasize new applications, as always is claimed for the next generation of networks. Others say it is universal access, across multiple networks, that will be a defining feature.

“Speed” often is positioned almost as an afterthought. But it would be reasonable to assume that speed will be among the most-obvious advantages for consumers, and that 5G-specific applications will develop later.

Ofcom, the U.K. communications regulator, believes 5G mobile will offer extremely fast data speeds of perhaps 10 Gbps to 50 Gbps, compared with today’s average 4G download speed of 15 Mbps (not considering LTE-Advanced or other developments in channel bonding that will boost speeds into the hundreds of megabits per second).

In South Korea, 300 Mbps already is commercially feasible over LTE networks.

For some, the new use of very high frequency spectrum above 6 GHz--not traditionally used for end user communications--could support financial trading, entertainment, gaming or holographic projections, Ofcom suggests.

Much more prevalent apps, at least initially, will be simple Internet access in high-density, high-traffic areas. Traditional “capacity,” in other words, is likely to be the immediate value.

The University of Surrey’s 5G Innovation Centre says the visioin for 5G is user experience that gives the user “the impression of infinite capacity.”

The International Telecommunication Union suggests peak 5G data rates will be in the range from 10 Gbps to  50 Gbps and latency of one millisecond.

At the moment, it is difficult to predict what the salient value of 5G--beyond capacity, speed and latency--will be. But that has been true for every succeeding generation of digital mobile networks.

Supporters often tout “new apps.” For service providers and consumers, the value almost always is found elsewhere--speed--initially. Eventually, new apps do emerge. You might argue text messaging was the singular legacy for 2G. You might suggest mobile email and Internet access was the legacy of 3G. Video entertainment might be developing as the singular new app that defines 4G.

Many believe apps related to the Internet of Things might characterize 5G. That sounds logical enough. But forecasters were wrong about new apps for 3G, which stubbornly refused to emerge. Most gave up on predicting new apps for 4G, arguing “there is no killer app.”

It is safe to argue 5G will support IoT apps. History might not confirm those predictions, at least in terms of magnitude. We rarely get it right, where it comes to next generation networks.

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