We’ve all seen the headlines over the past couple of years; the next big thing is here and it’s 5G. Articles and news stories from all industries are saying that 5G mobile networks are here to revolutionize the way we live. And it’s easy to see why. The world is becoming increasingly dependent on the internet and the improvements to speed and latency are potentially game-changing.
The main difference this time around with 5G is what incredibly low-latency and high-speeds could do for device interconnectivity. It’s predicted that 5G mobile networks are meant to revolutionize every possible industry every year from 2020-2025. IoT devices can take the next step and become one of the biggest factors in our day-to-day lives. Things like remote-surgeries or biometrics monitoring could be made safe and more widespread thanks to 5G.
But will 5G really revolutionize everything as advertised? There are a lot of issues that still need to be addressed before we can enjoy the benefits of 5G mobile networks. And no, it has nothing to do with conspiracy theories of 5G mobile towers and COVID-19.
Before the discussion about what impact high-speed and low-latency will have, we need to take a look at the current state of the internet. The biggest problem with advancements in networking is that they need new infrastructure to support them. Currently almost half of the world still doesn’t have access to the internet. And while this is obviously more common in underdeveloped countries, the issue is still widespread. 33 million Americans don’t have access to the internet so this isn’t just an issue of developed vs. underdeveloped countries. For 5G to be truly revolutionary it can’t be something only for wealthy and well-developed populations to make use of.
This report from 2019 also highlights that even those that have access to 4G infrastructure don’t necessarily have access to the full speed possible. Internet speed varies wildly between countries and areas and this will also be true for 5G networks. Some will be able to make use of the maximum speeds but most others will be dealing with lower speeds. This graph from OpenSignal illustrates the distribution of speeds across countries:
Without solid global adoption rates, apps and mobile devices won’t see 5G adoption anytime soon enough to make it something truly revolutionary.
The cost of 5G
Rolling out all the new infrastructure needed to support 5G mobile network connectivity comes at a huge cost with the necessary upgrades. Initial estimates for the international rollout cost was between $500 billion and $1 trillion. With the estimated cost for the US alone being around $275 billion. Greensill published a report that states by the end of 2020 alone the 5G supply chain rollout is likely to top $2.7 trillion.
This immense cost that will only increase as time goes on favors wealthier nations that are able to afford it. With a global pandemic raging and governments scrambling to plug holes in the various systems keeping the country together, allocating huge resources to 5G doesn’t seem too logical. This will end in entire regions holding out on their rollout or at least delaying it for some time. And without the widespread adoption of 5G, both devices and apps won’t be able to make full use of it with a large portion of their userbase not adopting.
The data cap issue
One of the biggest advantages of 5G is that you will be able to reach insane broadband speeds with very low latency. This is great for showing what 5G is capable of, but that isn’t what is going to be accessible to the vast majority of people. Data caps set by ISPs and carriers put huge limitations on what is possible. According to research by Cable.co.uk from February 2020, the price of one GB of mobile data varies internationally from $0.09 to $52.50. With a vast majority settling somewhere in the $1-$10 range. This graph shows a good distribution by region that shows the price can often be higher in well-developed regions that will adopt 5G early on.
With 5G speeds hitting 3 Gigabits per second and hoping to get even higher, it can use up almost any data plan internationally in a matter of minutes, if not seconds. It is almost a given that 5G data caps will eventually increase but with the internet being a monopolized commodity in most places what does this really mean. Will people have access to the data caps needed for 5G to have a revolutionary impact? And what will that mean for broadband internet? It remains to be seen.
Politics intertwined with 5G
The 5G race has become the latest battleground for global supremacy between the US and China. If you didn’t tune in to what is happening, the US took aim at Huawei Technologies when it started leading the race to supply 5G infrastructure. Last year, the US put Huawei on a blacklist that prevents any US-based company from dealing with them in any capacity. Ripples included Huawei phones not being able to officially support Android or the Google Play Store. This eventually led to many countries revisiting their initial stance of allowing Huawei infrastructure in their countries.
This battle between superpowers has led to 5G becoming more of a political issue rather than a potentially revolutionary technology for the entire world. There is a lot of power associated with the hyper-connectivity of 5G. And with countries fighting to take control over it, can it be weaponized or reduced to a political bargaining chip like other revolutionary technological breakthroughs before it? This could ultimately result in widespread skepticism of the offering. And at the very least will slow down the rollout until nations are sure about where they’re getting their 5G mobile networks from.
Waiting for the third industrial revolution
It’s clear that 5G is a revolutionary advancement in technology that is capable of real change to the way we live. But the time and cost it would take to reach that point and if it will even be allowed to happen is another question. Nuclear power was once talked about in the same way and deservedly so, but now it is a political power token for major superpowers. The world can really benefit from blazingly fast and low-latency internet, but there will need to be a lot of changes to how we monopolize and commoditize the internet for that to be a reality.