5G: Build it, and the use cases will come (hopefully)

Operators keep citing initial 5G use cases in industries, but it's hard to know what 5G might enable. (Getty Images)
Linda Hardesty editor's corner

DENVER — It’s quite deflating to listen to mobile executives enthuse about the “promise of 5G,” and then launch into mundane examples, such as controlling robots on manufacturing floors or alerting customers in the grocery store as to flash sales. Robots already do jobs on factory floors. They just happen to be connected by wires rather than wireless. And, shoppers already hear about flash sales when a grocery clerk announces it over the intercom system.

Speaking at the Big 5G Event Tuesday in Denver, Verizon’s SVP of technology and product development Nicki Palmer said the carrier is looking at future use cases in its 5G Lab. Those use cases include industrial examples. And, she gave a retail example where a customer who has a peanut allergy could use his smartphone with a 5G connection to scan for products that contain peanuts, without having to read all the labels.

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To be fair, Palmer also mentioned that Verizon has partnerships with universities, and it’s working with these partners in one instance to “capture holograms in real time and distribute them over a wireless network.” She added, “That can’t be done today. You need 5G for that.”

I have no idea how you would capture a hologram, but that certainly sounds a lot more exciting than groceries.

Verizon, and all carriers, are working to define 5G use cases. In Verizon’s case, Palmer said 5G revenues “start to be meaningful next year, and then the year after that they start to have an impact on our bottom line.” In terms of where those revenues come from, she mentioned the company’s 5G Home offering. But, in terms of its mobility plans, the company just last week said it was nixing the $10 premium for 5G until the service was more stabilized.

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Igor Glubochansky, AT&T’s AVP for mobility product management, said, “There are multiple ways to monetize, including potentially some speed tiers.”

Field of Dreams

Despite the fact that the early use cases for 5G aren’t very exciting, and despite the fact that 5G doesn’t seem like it will quickly pay for itself, that doesn’t mean 5G doesn’t hold promise. A few speakers at the Big 5G Event provided bigger-picture thoughtfulness about the technology.

Patrick Riordan, president and chief strategy officer for Nsight, a telecommunications company based in Wisconsin, said of 5G, “It’s an experience we don’t really understand. We tried predicting things in the past, and we weren’t very good at it. We had no idea Amazon, Facebook, or Google would be what they are today.”

Mishka Dehghan, VP of 5G development at Sprint, said the deployment of 5G applications will happen on a custom basis in response to the specific needs of customers or enterprises or verticals. For instance, Sprint is working with the city of Greenville, South Carolina to build out smart city infrastructure, using 5G and Sprint’s Curiosity IoT platform.

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“The requirements of the mayor of New York City are different than the mayor of Greenville, South Carolina,” said Dehghan. “It’s a collaboration that needs to happen within an ecosystem. 5G is the enabler. Then all these things have to come together to bring those use cases to life before we see an off-the-shelf use case.”

Finally, Craig Sparks, chief innovation officer at C Spire, said of 5G, “It’s not a race. There’s not a single finish line. It’s a continuous technology evolution.”