The day the world’s first commercial 5G services promised a great leap is still crystal clear in my memory. I remember two things from that day. I was interviewed on the launch that took place days before the planned launch date and the two parties racing to launch were from countries known for sending innovation out into the world. As it happened, the day went down in history without many of the details on how the great leap would be achieved. It was the case that some people thought 5G would change the world and that was how most people came to hear about it, even though many did not see an immediate need for it. Optimism was high within the telecom industry but spectrum and new revenue streams were likely t he reason behind the push for 5G.
Fast forward two years to current day, the great leap is still up in the air, seeking a safe landing with much of the earlier intense anticipation for 5G having been met with a dose of reality. It is hard to call it hype if going by the same standards used to assess 3G and 4G, but no one can deny the remaining presence of an expectation gap. While we did expect 5G to go global eventually, we did not expect it to have made so much more progress and so fast. It feels like more has been achieved in these past two years than within the entire duration the industry has been tinkering with 4G.
If 5G is so great, what is slowing it down?
In my opinion, technology is only not good enough, and spectrum is only not enough, if one is not clear on what one is solving for. There are businesses that have solved needs with the most basic technology, e.g., Rainforest Connection, and there are telco groups, e.g., Telenor, that can do better on connectivity even with less spectrum than competitors. Within other verticals, there are companies that are doing well with designs that show understanding of future mobility needs, e.g., Volkswagen. What is needed is greater understanding of the current state, e.g., with digitizing and digital transformation, and commercial considerations, e.g., understanding that purging legacy technology to make way for new technology is never an easy sell. Business cases have to take into account the risks associated with high one-time capital expenditure. Assuming costs are lowered with 5G, there are also regulations, people, and process considerations. The use of the price of a human life as justification for 5G, e.g., in mining in China, can help to sway the decision but it is a fact that long-term change is being driven by regulation and not businesses volunteering to address human rights.
Whilst the telecom industry is now more realistic with the use of technology, and is applying it where it is needed, e.g., Globe’s early implementation of FWA in 2019, 5G requires expertise in other verticals to understand where best to apply 5G. The business cases for 5G use cases are either too complex or too simple. The telcos now face a dilemma. They need to decide where to focus, where to develop expertise in, and where to stay a connectivity provider. Some say telcos are having an identity crisis. While there is some truth in that, there are also signs of desperation as cloud providers and third-party private network providers encroach on the 5G pie. While they are not known for the expertise in creating solutions, the large players amongst them, e.g., Singtel and Telekom Malaysia, do have the opportunity to sell the solutions to the enterprises that they already serve.
The next stage of growth requires different skillsets
In closing, I think that we are on the right path with 5G, thanks to the dreamers, innovators, makers, and doers of the world. I particularly would like to applaud Huawei for its Blade AAU and Openet for its Evolved Charging Suite 8.0. It is because a good plan can become a great plan with a few tweaks that I say that it is time for the visionaries, strategists, disruptors, and orchestrators to step forward and take on the task of sending this good work out into the world. The future with 5G is unfolding within a rapidly redefining world. The next stage will be bigger and broader, and it will need different skillsets to succeed. It is time for us to re-evaluate our 5G strategies to get it right. It is good that local governments support 5G. It would be ideal if Asia’s economies can benefit from a plan, e.g., to Make Asia Great and a roadmap to leverage 5G because when the great leap lands on progress, we can all in retrospect appreciate the race to launch 5G that we won.