With 5G demonstrations impressing attendees at Mobile World Congress 2019, it’s easy to believe the next generation of mobile network is just around the corner.
It’s touted as a transformational technology for both consumers and businesses, making it possible to do things that seem far-fetched now. For consumers, it promises to download movies in seconds and power virtual reality even if you’re nowhere near WiFi. For businesses, it would let autonomous cars talk to each other faster and make remote surgery, where doctors control robotic scalpels and other tools from anywhere, possible.
But how far away is this in reality? Verizon has launched 5G home broadband in parts of the US. Some sites are appearing in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Some UK cities will get 5G in 2019. And the big tech companies have announced the first 5G smartphones.
But the network will take years to fully roll out, even in relatively small and advanced markets like the UK. And the new applications remain as demos, prototypes or even slideware.
So, where does that leave businesses that want to transform their operations now? They could wait for the network to fully roll out. But in that time, they could lose their competitive advantage.
The good news is, 5G isn’t the only game in town.
Technologies exist that are can support new applications like the ones we mentioned above. 4G LTE networks already make it possible for cars to see through blind bends and alert drivers to what’s coming. Existing sensors and networks can already automate manufacturing plants. And digital devices already automate utility meter readings and infrastructure checks.
Examples from around the world show what’s already possible. One of Singapore’s top three telecoms companies, M1, has launched an internet of things network capable of running everything from fleet management to smart meters. Hong Kong Telekom has a set of WiFi-based smart home products to run people’s home cinema and air conditioning, and even open and close the curtains. And Vodafone has teamed up with Jaguar Land Rover and Huawei to demonstrate a vehicle-to-everything network that can handle long and short distance communications at the same time, telling drivers about accidents, braking cars and speed limit changes ahead.
So, businesses don’t have to wait for 5G to push ahead with their plans. But they do have to weigh up the case for investing in a different technology now. Will the technology carry on developing to match their own development plans? How much value will they get from the investment? And how long will they need to stick with it to get that value before upgrading again?
5G has the potential to be a game-changer for countless industries. But with uncertainty still surrounding the timeline for widespread availability, businesses should assess alternative technologies to keep innovating and maintain their competitive advantage.