Is 5G for real?

-November 02, 2017


Recently, a colleague asked me, "is 5G for real?" Not exactly the question that I was expecting, but there was something behind the question that gave me pause. Of course, 5G is not real—at least not yet—but that wasn’t the question. My colleague was really asking, "is 5G going to be as impactful as everyone anticipates?" Having been involved in the wireless industry for many years, I must admit to a certain fascination regarding 5G mainly due to the innovative technologies being proposed. But that’s a story for another day.

The question probes deeper into the business impact. When I searched for "5G business impact" I was rewarded with a paper by IHS Markit that attempts to answer my colleague’s question. IHS Markit speculates that 5G will become a General-Purpose Technology (GPT), a development so impactful that it becomes a catalyst for socio-economic transformation. To give you some perspective, other examples cited as GPTs in our history include the printing press and electricity.

IHS Markit's reasoning for valuing 5G so highly relates to the scope of the specification and the associated goals covering untapped wireless capabilities. The Enhanced Mobile Broadband (EMBB) case is probably the most relatable as everyone wants higher data rates. Faster data can, however, give rise to new applications in augmented and virtual reality -– two applications that have yet to realize the vast potential of the graphics and processing technologies already available. Wireless connectivity to match these capabilities will create value and spawn new industries and applications.

Massive Machine Type Communication (mMTC), on the other hand, attempts to connect billions of devices and incorporate wireless into many devices not previously connected and expand their utility. We've seen a glimpse of this opportunity today with new IoT deployments but IoT technologies must overcome some obstacles to take the next step. Specifically, there is no pervasive or ubiquitous wireless IoT standard. As such, there are challenges to overcome in terms of interoperability and seamless connectivity to infrastructure and even smart devices. Without a ubiquitous standard, mMTC and IoT may be challenged to achieve the economies of scale necessary for widespread adoption.

5G use cases


Another class of application encompasses Mission Critical Services (MCS). The 3GPP has already embarked on defining the 5G standard to reduce overall network response and latency. Applications impacted by MCS include autonomous vehicles, drones, remote health and monitoring, industrial automation, and smart grid/energy.

Each of these applications evaluated separately could yield tremendous economic benefit but taken in total, the potential is staggering. IHS Markit expects 5G to contribute $12.3 T (yes, that's "T" as in trillion) to the global economy by 2035. IHS Markit is not alone in their predictions as the world's economic leaders continue to invest in 5G with a myriad of funding and regulatory support. These global leaders are betting on 5G to catalyze impactful GDP growth and to create significant economic prosperity.

2035 is 18 years away but the 5G foundation is being laid today. Creating an ecosystem for these applications will take investment, dedication and perseverance, and above all, it will take time. Semiconductors, software, infrastructure, data centers, edge computing, and of course test and measurement must rise up to realize the vast potential that 5G promises. It won't be easy, but with the commitment of the industry and the world's government leadership, 5G has unstoppable momentum. The question is not whether 5G will be impactful, the question is when?

James Kimery is the director of marketing for RF, communications, and software defined radio (SDR) initiatives at National Instruments.

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