The 5G Party Kicks Off

What if they gave a party and nobody came? That’s the question preoccupying mobile operators and equipment makers as they continue to roll out 5G networks and equipment worldwide, without a very clear sense of what will make customers in many sectors pay a premium to use the technology.

This uncertainty is shared by respondents to a survey conducted by Molex and third-party research firm, Dimensional Research, among 5G carrier network professionals working in R&D, product, or engineering roles. Three-fifths of the executives surveyed in the group feel that it will take the emergence of a – yet undefined – use case or ‘killer app’ to drive the adoption of 5G. Despite this, almost all survey respondents believe that end users will achieve substantial benefits from 5G within five years. The question then is what will the killer app be, or will it actually take multiple breakthroughs in multiple market sectors and regions to deliver the end-user benefits that the telecom industry so confidently predicts will come?

For context, the GSM Association, which represents the global mobile industry, offers some startling statistics about how pervasive mobile technology already is. In March 2021, it says, there were more than 5.3bn unique mobile subscribers worldwide, and a total of more than 10.3bn mobile connections including licensed cellular links for Internet of Things (IoT) devices. By 2025, it predicts 20% of mobile connections (excluding cellular IoT links) will be able to access 5G networks, up from zero in 2019. It also suggests that 24.6bn IoT devices will rely upon cellular connectivity in 2025, up from 12bn in 2019, although it is unclear how many will be using 5G networks. Although these predictions were made before the pandemic upended our expectations, the mobile industry clearly believes there’s going to be a strong appetite for 5G – and soon.

There’s good reason for being positive about the technological capabilities of 5G networks, which offer faster upload and download speeds, lower latency connections, and the ability to support more connections per unit area than previous generations of cellular technology. Handset makers such as Apple, Samsung, Oppo and Vivo have already launched 5G phones as flagship products for their brands. And while these vendors are promoting the peak data rates enabled by 5G networks in their marketing, it may be that, at first, consumers will appreciate (and buy) 5G because it makes it easier to get a connection in busy places. Anyone who’s been in a crowded mall on a Saturday afternoon with a handset showing five signal bars but unable to make a connection will immediately appreciate the tremendous utility of an upgrade to 5G.

It’s in the nature of new technology introductions that the way they are used often surprises their developers. Users take technologies intended for one use and repurpose them for something completely different. The launch of 4G, for example, enabled fast downloads and mobile video. But did anyone really expect Netflix to take off in the way it has, or the emergence of video-based social media platforms such as TikTok, because of 4G? That’s why the consumer market will be such an important proving ground for 5G. While other sectors are still trying to work out how to take advantage of 5G, hundreds of millions of end users will be exploring its capabilities, the use cases it enables, and the supporting business models.

Survey respondents go along with this analysis, with 43% of them expecting that consumers will be first to take advantage of 5G. Different consumer applications will exercise different aspects of the technology, providing valuable insights for other sectors. Asked what the killer app for consumer 5G would be, 35% of respondents picked augmented reality and 34% chose gaming. Both take advantage of the low latency and high data rates of 5G connections, rather than the enhanced availability that would attract our Saturday afternoon shopper.

Survey respondents pick industrial IoT as the next sector that they expect to benefit from 5G, in applications such as factory automation, process control, the implementation of smart grids, robotics, and logistics. After the industrial sector comes fixed wireless access, especially for deploying broadband to rural communities. There are also high hopes for 5G in the automotive sector, at first for infotainment and telematics, and later to allow over-the-air firmware updates and enable autonomous driving capabilities. Next on the survey’s expected timeline come enterprise wireless networks, and then medical applications.

So perhaps the search for a single killer app is an outdated metaphor, and what 5G industry watchers should be looking out for is 5G’s ‘killer crew,’ a posse of new use cases that will drive the 5G standard’s uptake by taking advantage of different technological capabilities in different markets at different times.

What if 5G gave a party and no-one came? It doesn’t look this is going to be the mobile industry’s problem. More likely, the rollout of 5G will be like one of those killer parties where all the expected guests turn up on time, and then a steady stream of unexpected but welcome visitors arrive throughout the evening and long into the early hours. As any host knows, the key to a successful party is to understand each guest’s differing needs and motivations and then to help them enjoy the party in their own ways, with their choice of other guests, at their own pace. With its regional presence around the globe, infrastructure and device-level expertise, deep understanding of the evolving needs of multiple market sectors, and constant research and development activity to anticipate changing industry requirements, Molex is in an ideal position to be the host and matchmaker of a tremendous 5G party.

Vice President and General Manager Micro Solutions Business Unit at Molex