Chickens and eggs: The problem of the 5G use case

DALLAS—Self-driving cars, smart cities and remote surgery are often among the top so-called use cases for 5G. Meaning, these are the things that users will actually need 5G for, once operators, vendors and the industry at large finish their collective investments into the technology in order to bring it to life.

However, it’s worth pointing out that these use cases represent the industry’s current collective best guesses. The truth is that no one really knows what people will do with 5G.

Figuring out the 5G use case “is what we’re trying to do,” explained AT&T’s Brian Daly, director of the carrier’s core, government and regulatory standards, here at the 5G North America trade show.

“We really don’t know what we don’t know,” said Chris Pearson, president of the 5G Americas trade association. Pearson explained that wireless executives can’t know how developers might innovate in the future with 5G technologies.

Pearson is right, of course. There’s no way to predict the future. But 5G proponents often point to the incredible success of the iPhone and similar smartphones as an example of the kinds of innovations that next-generation wireless networks can foster.

The argument goes like this: Prior to the launch of the Apple iPhone and other advanced, touchscreen smartphones, it was unclear how users might take advantage of the super-fast speeds provided by LTE (which was on its way toward replacing 3G when the iPhone was launched in 2007). Indeed, in the years leading up to the unveiling of the iPhone, some in the industry argued that EDGE, UMTS and HSPA networks might well provide wireless users with all the speed and capacity they would ever need.

Those assumptions were of course blown away in the following years as smartphoners gleefully watched videos, downloaded apps and generally generated unprecedented amounts of network traffic. Indeed, the situation for AT&T (which for years was the exclusive provider of the iPhone) became so dire that the carrier’s overloaded network became a common punchline during late-night TV.

Fast forward to today, and the speeds and spectral efficiency provided by LTE have largely addressed concerns over network capacity. In fact, the wireless situation in the United States is stable enough now that three of the four major nationwide wireless operators are currently offering unlimited data services to millions of new wireless users, and carriers including AT&T and Verizon don’t appear to be showing much interest in the FCC’s ongoing incentive auction of TV broadcasters’ 600 MHz spectrum licenses.

Which raises the question: Why do we need 5G, anyway?

Speakers here at the 5G North America show offered a range of possible 5G use cases. AT&T, for example, boasted that 5G would enable the “industrial revolution 2.0” by powering services like remote surgery, pervasive video, industrial robotics and autonomous cars. For his part, Pearson at 5G Americas predicted three areas of usage including enhanced mobile broadband, massive machine-type communications, and “ultra-reliable and low latency communications.”

While it’s true that all of these areas would likely benefit from the faster connections that 5G promises, it’s unclear whether those faster speeds are necessary – or whether operators would be able to put a more expensive price tag on those speeds. Meaning, it’s unclear whether 5G demand today warrants billions of dollars in investments for new infrastructure.

Let’s take a look at a few of the most common 5G use cases:

Autonomous driving: It’s true that players ranging from Tesla to Google to Ford are making significant pushes into this sector. What once sounded like science fiction – cars driving motorists around in slow-speed environments – might well become reality in just a year or two. That’s kind of astounding.

However, do autonomous cars really need 5G networks? The answer is, not really. Today’s self-driving cars definitely make use of existing LTE networks, but their autonomy is largely due to locally stored maps, a vast array of sensors and plenty of computing power. Super-fast 5G networks with low latency could definitely enable additional services, such as wide-scale traffic manipulation (like warning a group of cars to slow down because of black ice), but the basic autonomous car use case of driving someone to their nearby office isn’t contingent on 5G.

Remote surgery: 5G promises to virtually eliminate latency, which proponents argue makes it possible for surgeons to use 5G to remotely control robots that would conduct operations on patients in far-flung locations. Now, I’m no healthcare expert, but I have a hard time imagining that there is a huge amount of demand among doctors to stay at home. Moreover, the idea of remote surgery is often used in the context of rural locations, but 5G will definitely be deployed in dense urban areas first where doctors and hospitals already are.

Remote surgery with 5G may well be a thing, I just don’t think it will be a big thing, and I don’t think it will be a thing anytime soon.

Massive IoT: 5G proponents routinely argue that the technology will allow network operators to provide connections to millions, or even billions, of machines and gadgets. And while this is definitely true, the demand here again remains unclear, as Mobile Experts' Joe Madden explained to me this week. Some IoT devices may well make use of high-speed video services or ultra-low latency, but I suspect there’s a far larger opportunity for inexpensive connections and ubiquitous coverage.

It’s exactly this demand for cheap service and extensive coverage that’s driving the current low-power, wide area network (LPWAN) sector, drawing players like Senet, Sigfox, Ingenu, Silver Springs Networks, Comcast and others.

5G may well provide a valuable service to some IoT customers, but again the question is how many of these kinds of customers are out there, and how much they might pay.

Now, does this all mean there’s no real reason to invest in 5G? Definitely not. It just means that some of the main use cases for the technology remain somewhat unclear.

What is clear though is a general rising demand for connections, including connections that are faster and more accessible than those available today. That’s what 5G promises, and I expect that’s what the industry will provide. Nonetheless, it’s definitely worth noting that there doesn’t appear to be clear, widespread demand for a technology that many companies like Ericsson, Nokia and Verizon have touted as the next big thing. – Mike | @mikeddano