In Business Model, Internet Access, Mobile, Spectrum

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.

One recent study by Rethink Research, for example, suggests that the obstacles range from the typical (sites) and site approvals to backhaul. But there are lot of issues. And that refers only to the physical challenge of creating the 5G access network. Ultimately more challenging is the business model for 5G.

Specifically, will 5G actually lead to creation of huge new businesses, and revenue streams, that not only justify building 5G, but also are substantial enough to offset legacy revenue source declines. In a nutshell, the key issue is that revenue from sales of services to human beings will be under pressure. The big hope is that new services to support enterprise applications will be huge new drivers of revenue and growth.

One can argue that human beings, as consumers do not “need” 5G bandwidth. That is substantially correct. But bandwidth is not the issue. Aside from latency performance, and the changes in core networks (virtualization), the paramount issue is whether 5G creates a platform for new machine-to-machine services.



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