Why 5G Isn’t All About Speed


Several articles have been written this week around 5G, and the potential of a network speed that’s more than 100 times current speed. With this possibility on the horizon, it’s easy to get lost in the headline… but in this case speed isn’t everything. In fact, over time it’s likely to be the least important aspect of the potential 5G will unlock.


We’ve quickly come to a place where our network speed is not the problem; or at least, not the core problem. It’s a safe bet that the world will consume more media on-demand while at the same time expecting it to be more responsive and immersive. At the same time devices will continue to evolve and will increasingly utilize the network as a primary requirement, which will undoubtedly not only test capacity but make speed and performance even more critical. But despite this we’re rapidly moving to a place where the next evolution of the standard will be a lot more about the experiences and intelligence of the network than the raw speed of it.


It goes without saying that the classification of the network lost its meaning to the some time ago. Ask someone to define the differences -outside of speed- between 3G, 4G and the coming 5G and you’re likely to get a blank stare. Go into the logistics around spectrum and transport and you will absolutely lose your audience completely. It doesn’t help that the national providers toss around network terms like they are advertising fast food bundles at McDonalds… in most ways the network classifications have become more marketing term than reality to the general population that depends on them.


To put it in perspective… yes, 5G is certainly about more speed and capacity. The goal of the standard is to provide a data transport rate faster than 50 times current Wi-Fi benchmarks… or the equivalent of being able to stream a 2-hour movie in less than three seconds. This level of performance is absolutely exciting and perhaps even a bit difficult to even get your head around if you’ve ever struggled through launching Netflix from your plastic seat within the terminal of a congested airport. But with faster performance come other considerations that are equally, if not ultimately more important, than pure speed.


For innovators, the prospect of 5G represents the first major step toward the Internet of Things. But a better way to look at this evolution is not to focus on the devices but about locations: The Internet of Places perhaps, or The Internet of Everywhere. With faster speeds come the ability to provide immediate intelligence to locations and situations that were previously unreachable due to the lag in the network. The autonomous car, predictive translation, carrying media, environmental awareness and cloud-based through-putting all requires a level of device-level communication that is really only possible if you have a quick and responsive mechanism to support it.


The Connected Car must have the ability to not only communicate with other vehicles and locations in the moment, but also must be able react and reorient itself instantly. The value in real time services around retail and hospitality are only as valuable as their ability to instantly predict, communicate and react to people in constant movement. All this means is that speed is important as the platform, but it’s just the beginning. It’s all of the intelligence that is possible as a result of the speed that is the real magic of 5G.


While previous standards relied on a traditional antenna as the primary network infrastructure, 5G will require much different equipment in order to provide its transport “net” and data infrastructure. The equipment needed to power this system will be much closer to the devices themselves, and in turn will require far greater scrutiny around security and stability. Once the world begins to rely on the services the speed provides, the importance of keeping the network active and reliable becomes that much more critical. Using the example above; while struggling with Netflix to steam content in a congested area might be annoying it’s a far cry from what happens when your connected car, home or office begins to stutter.


While many articles can be written around the pitfalls and dangers of a connected world (and they are, and you can find them everywhere) the real danger is to companies who view 5G as a speed boost and nothing more. The potential of 5G represents the delivery of a capability that will powerfully transform the way companies engage with their audience. But to realize this capability companies must think about the network differently, taking into account that speed is an enabler to bigger experience, not the experience itself.


Over the next few weeks I’ll continue to explore the experiences that 5G could provide, and why in the end speed is only the first step of the journey.

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