21-06-2023 | By Robin Mitchell
The introduction of 5G networks was supposed to usher in a new era of technology, with wide-scale IoT deployments, connected cars, and high-speed internet. However, it seems that the deployment of 5G hasn’t proven to be the success it claimed it would be. What challenges does 5G as a networking technology face, why has it struggled to find success, and what does this mean for the future of networking technologies?
What challenges does 5G face?
Compared to its predecessor, 5G provides networks with far more capabilities thanks to its significantly increased bandwidth, lower latency, and support for more instantaneous connections. However, 5G faces numerous challenges which engineers and researchers have had to invest millions into solving.
Firstly, in order to support higher bandwidths, 5G uses higher frequencies, but this comes at the cost of having a significantly reduced range. Not only is the range significantly impacted by the use of higher frequencies, but obstacles such as trees and buildings are more likely to interfere with reception. Due to this coverage issue, more localised towers are needed.
However, installing more towers also increases the cost of deploying 5G networks. To try and counteract this, network operators focus on providing coverage in areas that will yield greater profits (i.e., more users), which undoubtedly results in neglected rural areas.
5G installations also suffer from the need for high-speed internet connections, and these are almost always wired. Even in dense urban areas, the expected bandwidth that 5G towers can provide requires dense fibre cable systems, as existing cable solutions may be insufficient. Therefore, installing 5G towers incurs costs at multiple levels, from the physical installation of cellular equipment to laying new network cables capable of servicing those systems.
In addition to these technical and financial challenges, there are also regulatory and market uncertainties surrounding 5G. According to a UK government report, there is uncertainty about the extent to which the market will be willing and able to invest at scale in capital-intensive 5G networks, particularly in less populated areas (Connected Future, p. 32).
Why has 5G struggled to find success?
5G provides many benefits, but the challenges faced with the technology have hindered its rollout, with coverage often being spotty at best. While cities and towns may be able to benefit from 5G, for many around the world, 5G is still unable to beat 4G in availability. Most smartphones continue to use 4G, and 5G coverage is not often great. However, even if 5G was available all over the world, would the technology be utilised to its true potential?
Modern smartphones, arguably the biggest mobile data consumer, have gone as far as they can go with regard to what they offer consumers. Of course, new mobile devices come with better cameras, sensors, and features, but when considering that most users watch videos, send emails, and video call friends, almost all devices on the market can do this.
For example, going beyond 4K video doesn’t make sense as 4K is already sharp enough to the human eye, and the current infrastructure is already capable of streaming 4K video. It is perfectly possible for video streaming services such as YouTube to offer 8K, 12K, and 100K video, but the additional resolution gained pales in comparison to the increase in bandwidth needed to stream such a video.
However, it's important to note that 5G is not just about providing faster speeds for video streaming. As the UK government points out, 5G is expected to facilitate a wide range of new services in diverse sectors, such as smart cities, eHealth, energy management, cloud computing, augmented and virtual reality, autonomous vehicles, online gaming, and enhanced mobile broadband (Connected Future, p. 33).
At the same time, many devices are moving towards edge computing, meaning that a lot of data processing is happening locally. Going back a few years, many believed that devices would utilise low-latency connections to take advantage of cloud computing, but it is becoming more clear with time that local processing is far superior to remote computing (with the exception of data-heavy tasks such as machine learning).
But it is not just consumer markets that have provided challenges with 5G network operators. Before 5G was established, it was believed that autonomous driving would become dominant in the automotive industry, and this would require massive bandwidth and low latency (as video content would be streamed live, processed, and results returned to vehicles). However, despite the many promises of people such as Elon Musk, autonomous driving is still a fantasy and connected vehicles are nowhere near to being practical.
However, it's important to note that the potential applications of 5G extend far beyond autonomous driving. According to a UK government report, 5G could support the evolution of highly connected and fully autonomous vehicles, as well as new services in sectors such as healthcare and gaming. For example, real-time health monitoring and augmented reality could improve lives and generate growth (Connected Future, p. 9).
As such, a large portion of expected 5G consumers have failed to materialise, and the low-latency and high-bandwidth capabilities of 5G are being wasted.
Yet, the potential of 5G should not be underestimated. As the UK government points out, 5G is expected to deliver a step change of ultrafast, low latency, reliable mobile connectivity, able to support society’s ever larger data requirements as well as wide-ranging new applications. From connected and autonomous vehicles to an Internet of Things, 5G has the potential to be transformative across a number of sectors, including health, transport and education (Connected Future, p. 5).
It was also hoped that drones would become a key consumers of 5G networks, especially in autonomous deliveries. But, just like autonomous driving, all attempts to set up drone systems have so far failed to yield commercial results, and this has seen large amounts of investor money wasted.
What does this mean for the future of networking technologies?
Hyping up a new technology isn’t exactly new, and unlike many other hype trains (such as Elon Musk’s absurd idea of the hyperloop), 5G is a perfectly viable technology. However, the world simply isn’t ready for 5G as it doesn’t currently need it. If anything, what the world really needs is better 4G coverage that is reliable and can produce consistent results, even in remote areas.
But the associated hype with 5G has resulted in a loss in investor confidence, and this could have long-term ramifications. If technologies are hyped up too much, it can hurt their development in the long run, as investors will be less likely to reinvest in projects, even when there is market demand for them. In the case of future network technologies such as 6G, investors may look back at how 5G failed to provide decent returns on investment and be put off from investing.
However, it's important to remember that the development of new technologies often involves a certain degree of risk. As the UK government points out, the UK has the potential to be a world leader in the development and deployment of 5G, but this will require continued investment and innovation (Connected Future, p. 10).
Despite these challenges, it's worth noting that the deployment of 5G could still bring significant benefits. For example, the UK government's Industrial 5G Testbeds and Trials report highlights how 5G could support the digital transformation of the manufacturing sector by providing fast, reliable, and flexible configuration of Quality of Service and traffic demands through network slicing (Industrial 5G Testbeds and Trials, p. 62)
While 5G has faced numerous challenges and has not yet lived up to the hype, it still holds significant potential. As technology continues to evolve and as more sectors begin to explore the possibilities of 5G, it's possible that we will see a new wave of innovation and growth. The key will be to learn from the challenges faced by 5G and to continue investing in the development of new and improved networking technologies.
Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport. (2017). The impacts of mobile broadband and 5G. [online] Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/ [Accessed 21 Jun. 2023].
Digital Catapult. (2019). Industrial 5G Testbeds and Trials - Sectors Analysis. [online] Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/ [Accessed 21 Jun. 2023].
National Infrastructure Commission. (2016). Connected Future. [online] Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/ [Accessed 21 Jun. 2023].