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5G needs to overcome the hype, and here’s how

“The problem with 5G is overreach.  We start off with a network technology that, realistically speaking, has a 100% probability of deployment.  We then try to gild the lily, insisting that every 3GPP feature be deployed, and that everything we do with 5G be something new, never done before, never possible.  We want the rollout to be immediate, and we want it to be exciting.  The result is that among the operators I talk with, there’s a persistent feeling that 5G might “fail”.

The biggest factor in this overreach is the desire by 5G vendors to promote their technology and accelerate its deployment by using the media.  It won’t surprise anyone to hear that stories are more likely to be run if they introduce something new and exciting.  Given that, a story that “5G supports the same video viewing, the same web access, and the same applications” as 4G did is hardly likely to make the top of the editorial hit parade.  That’s sad, because initially that’s exactly what 5G is going to have to do, and what’s going to have to justify its deployment.

5G supports more bandwidth and more customers per cell site than 4G, which is more than enough to guarantee that operators will deploy it anywhere cellular services are widely used.  As more phones become 5G-capable, there will be more pressure to deploy 5G in sites where its specific features aren’t necessarily needed, or even useful.  We’ll end up with 5G pretty much everywhere, but it might well take a decade to achieve that.  It’s this slow evolution that has vendors worried, and it leaves network reporters and editors struggling to write something.  In fact, recent skeptical stories about 5G can be attributed to the inevitable evolution of coverage.  First, you overhype something to get readers interested.  Then it underperforms your overhype.  Then you write stories about how it failed.

Vendors, who often will freely admit to their role in this as long as you promise not to quote them, feel that they have little to lose by pushing 5G ahead of realistic use cases.  They know they’ll win in a decade, and that “discrediting” 5G in the media won’t really delay the realistic deployment timeline.  If hype could accelerate it, with no risk of deceleration, why not go for it?

Well, there are actually some issues created by the 5G hype cycle, issues that I think vendors should consider.  The obvious issue is consumer credibility.  If people’s expectations for 5G are inflated by hype, it’s likely early adopters won’t be able to report much positive about their experience, which will then make it harder to socialize 5G to a larger user base.  But that’s not the real problem, which is that we really do need to identify things that only 5G can do, and the hype is hurting rather than helping.

If you read up on 5G use cases, you find all kinds of things that sound exciting, but that require a rather significant cooperative investment by 5G service providers and technology providers who will support the use cases with user-side technology.  What we need to look for instead are 5G use cases with two specific characteristics.  First, we need some that can be exploited with limited add-on technology on the user side, stuff less complicated than buying an autonomous vehicle.  Second, we need some that can be exploited without developing a software/content ecosystem that would itself have to be justified.

Self-drive cars are a great example of overreach.  Nobody is going to deploy 5G hoping that someday, vehicle manufacturers will sell self-drive cars, and that a lot of drivers will buy them.  There have to be steps in the process or it won’t fly (or drive).

The first logical step is to apply autonomous vehicle technology to vehicles that operate within a specific facility or space, and under common central control.  Warehouse material is a good example, and so are locomotives.  These kinds of vehicles could either be retrofitted with control technology or could be built new with the technology included (likely for the warehouse example).  Using private 5G or even network slices, it would be possible to control these vehicles via 5G, and while there still would likely be a human operator to override controls if a problem occurred, it would create a standard control mechanism that could then be gradually applied to other applications.

Another logical step would be to define a connected-car element that used 5G to communicate, and initially focus it on telemetry.  The module would receive data from the car’s computer on the status of all the monitored systems, including the current speed.  It would also have GPS capability to report location data, the ability to accept multiple camera inputs (driver’s view and interior view, for example).  All this information would be coded in a standard way and made available, subject to both subscription and security information, to applications via 5G.  Something like this could be built as an after-market add-on as well as a build-in to new vehicles.  If it had a control-out channel that had a standard interface, it could then be used for vehicle control where control systems were available to link with.

Robotic surgery is another of the 5G hype applications, one I’ve blogged about before.  The problem of course is that there are neither the robots available nor the number of procedures likely to be carried out, so as to justify the use case.  But were we to define a telemedicine element, a module that would communicate with 5G and support standard interfaces for medical monitoring and even for device control for devices with current remote capability, there would be an easier uptake.  We could still add an interface for future robotic control to future-proof the gadget.

We already have a large number of people worldwide who require medical monitoring outside a hospital.  During a disaster, we could well have a lot more of them.  Basic combinations of telemedicine modules and monitors or controllable elements could be deployed to homes and nursing homes, with more complex sets of equipment made available in trailers for remote setup during disaster relief.

Telemedicine is also a viable option for care in areas where having a full staff of medical professionals is impractical or isn’t cost-effective.  A trained technician with a full-service kit of telemedicine tools could provide far more diagnostic and treatment choices than videoconference-based telemedicine, which we’ve already accepted for some missions.

The key points to my examples here are, first, that they’re a subset of the pop culture use cases, second, that they focus on something that can be achieved near-term, and finally that they are all examples of a mission-first approach.  5G as a communication technology needs something to communicate with.  We need to get that something deployable (financially and physically) in quantity before we start talking about it as a 5G driver.  I’m not saying we need roaming telemedicine clinics in search of 5G services, but that we need to be able to deploy them immediately where 5G services are made available.  Otherwise they’re not a use case.

Operators or vendors who want to accelerate 5G should look at the examples I’ve offered here.  There are similar examples available for all the hyped-up use cases for 5G.  All of them could be made rational in a stroke, and while the rational version might not be as interesting in click-bait terms as the pop culture version, a phantom use case generates a phantom deployment.  Reality matters.”

―Blog by Tom Nolle, President, CIMI Corp, CT Bureau

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