With 5G on the cusp of the first network launches, there's no shortage of attention on the thorny subject of use cases for the technology. This isn't surprising, given the large capital spending required by 5G networks and bold promises of performance. Nor is it straightforward, as many of the applications cited are utopian in vision and will need a level of maturity and footprint that will be unrealistic for some years.
There's a paradox with 5G investment. Networks must be designed today with the flexibility to deliver diverse requirements tomorrow. However, the near-term justifications for outlay are very different to those that will create revenue in the longer term.
The industry pursuit of "killer" uses largely misses this bigger picture. The short-term role of 5G will be all about mobile broadband, followed by massive internet of things and mission-critical services once coverage is in place and network intelligence has evolved and become fully software-defined. Let's not forget that growth of NB-IoT and LTE Category M1 is only just beginning to build.
So what's the near-term role of 5G? Competition is playing a big part in spurring investment, but CCS Insight sees two other immediate primary drivers for 5G. The first is capacity, a factor that's often overlooked because it's self-evident and lacks pizzazz, but the introduction of new frequencies coupled with greater efficiency will be critical as demand on networks intensifies.
However, although throughput is the focal point of discussion about 5G, arguably the bigger enabler will be low latency. The arrival of 4G brought a huge boost to mobile broadband speeds, giving rise to a host of new business models, from Instagram to Uber. We believe that in the next three to five years, low-latency connections of between 5 and 10 milliseconds initially, and ultimately sub-1.5 milliseconds, will have a similarly considerable impact.
If we think specifically about what low-latency connections can facilitate, rather than taking a broader view of 5G, the potential is clear. Augmented reality is a commonly touted use, but it's still in a nascent stage and hasn't seen the explosive adoption expected since the launch of the ARKit and ARCore development platforms. Recent announcements of support for multiperson, collaborative experiences in real time stand to be a major driver, thanks to the all-important "network effect," and one for which a low-latency connection is critical. The same applies to virtual reality. Both technologies need low latency to accurately and realistically render and present content and movement, but this importance is heightened when there's real-time interaction taking place.
Similarly, low latency is crucial for real-time multiplayer games. Any gamer will testify to the frustration of delayed responses resulting in a goal or fatal shot before the player has had the opportunity to move. It will also open new opportunities for high-performance streamed games, with the horsepower located at a server and distributed to the user via a 5G connection. Benefits also exist in video streaming, particularly when the stream needs to run in parallel with a live event. A good example is viewing on a second screen, for which different camera angles and data feeds must be relevant in real time. The advantages of low latency could even extend to voice services, with emerging applications such as real-time translation.
These examples only scratch the surface of what low-latency 5G is poised to offer. Enterprise uses are similarly diverse, with near-term purposes including real-time document collaboration and remote control of surveillance tools such as drones.
In the first few years of 5G, low latency is set to deliver an impact comparable to the leap in throughput of 4G. This will prompt cloud services, computing and the network itself to transform—a topic we'll address specifically soon.
The wireless industry is hopelessly hunting for a single 5G killer application, but this leads to a focus on idealistic uses for the distant future—we've all seen the remote heart surgery case study—when there are clearer immediate benefits to be gained. The reality is that it won't be about one app or use, and 5G will deliver considerable value long before we get to autonomous cars and passenger drones.
Geoff Blaber is vice president of research for the Americas at CCS Insight. Based in California, Blaber heads CCS Insight’s Americas business and supports the range of clients located in this territory. Blaber's research focus spans a broad spectrum of mobility and technology, including the lead role in semiconductors. He is a well-known member of the analyst community and provides regular commentary to leading news organizations such as Reuters, the Financial Times and The Economist. You can follow him on Twitter @geoffblaber.
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