In Business Model, Mobile

As often happens, important new technologies and products have a “hype cycle,” where high expectations then encounter fatigue, and only later is the value obvious. So it is not surprising that some are skeptical about 5G.

Actually, both the “5G is the next big thing” and “5G will be an expensive failure” points of view are defensible, for different parts of the ecosystem, suppliers and access providers alike, around the world.

Much of the value of 5G, if it actually happens that 5G enables the creation of big new businesses and revenue streams, will accrue to some app providers, some service providers, some hardware and software suppliers, and not to others. Scale will matter, so a connected car business might have more value for an AT&T or Verizon than for many smaller service providers, whose operations will continue to flow mostly from connectivity revenue, and not from the application and services ownership part of the business.

Service providers with urban and dense footprints will benefit more than service providers with high rural footprints. Firms with better access to capital will benefit more than those with fewer resources to tap. And, as always, scale will matter. The larger entities will benefit more than the smaller entities.

There are some obvious challenges, especially related to the capital cost of creating a much-denser network, with more-sophisticated cell sites, to support the strategic millimeter-wave spectrum that 5G will bring, in huge amounts. Aside from the new investments in platform, 5G is going to require smaller cells than has been possible for 2G, 3G and 4G. The reason is physics: millimeter wave signals do not travel as far, and do not penetrate obstacles such as glass and concrete.

So skeptics are right to argue that 5G will be quite capital intensive new investments. Some service providers and markets will not be able to create and sustain all the new businesses 5G is expected to generate, for reasons of scale.

The analogy is operator-owned linear or over-the-top video services. Some firms, and some countries, have internal markets too small to support such lines of business. But for big, tier-one providers in some markets, video has emerged as a key driver of incremental revenue.

In a nutshell, there will be 5G winners and losers, to a greater extent than was true for 2G, 3G and 4G. The reason is that big success in the 5G ecosystem is so contingent on the emergence of huge new businesses from enterprise, machine-to-machine, smart industry and other “new” applications. The other angle is that many of the new 5G applications are enterprise-oriented. So big levels of success require big internal markets.  

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