In the 5G era, we might finally discover that we have enough bandwidth to do anything we want, and other issues will become more important. That is not to say aggregate data consumption will stop growing, or that new apps will develop to use the capabilities of the new networks.
It is to say that where bandwidth (internet access speeds as a proxy) have been the main concern for policymakers and users, we will within the next decade probably discover, as we did with personal computer clock speeds, that it does not much matter so much, as all processors work well enough to get the job done.
That might seem far fetched, but we arguably already have reached the point, for many consumers, where additional speed simply does not improve user experience at all. The reason is that the speed of access links on both ends of any transaction (mobile device on one end, server on the other) are fast enough not to be the bottleneck.
In many cases, it is processing time at the far-end server that matters. In my own case, I routinely work on networks whose speed tends to run between 6 Mbps (Wi-Fi or 4G, at times) on the low end up to 200 Mbps for the fixed network, with mobile access at about 12 Mbps to 14 Mbps.
And since nearly 100 percent of all the apps I run are cloud based, speed only helps up to a point. Sure, below 6 Mbps is a problem. But anything faster than about 15 Mbps seems not to help much. In fact, Ofcom studies have suggested that above 10 Mbps on the end use access line, there is no improvement in user experience that speed alone can remedy.
“Access speed, although necessary, is not sufficient to guarantee a high quality Internet service,” Ofcom found. “In fact, with access above around eight to 10 Mbps, speed generally ceases to become the dominant factor in determining service quality.”
The caveats are that streaming 4K video might well require 25 Mbps per stream.
So a reasonable conclusion might be that minimum bandwidth per user will reach something on the order of 30 Mbps per user when consumption of 4K video is common. In a three-user household that might suggest a need for 90 Mbps.
The point is that internet access speed, in the U.S. market, for many users, is far below the gigabit standard that now is becoming available. Barring something unexpected, gigabit speeds will be fast enough, long enough, that attention will turn elsewhere, in terms of improving user experience.
The same should be true of eventual 6G concerns. Speed probably is not going to be the focus, even if each succeeding mobile generation has featured faster speeds. At some point, users simply cannot take advantage of the additional speed to wring experience improvements from those increases.