Despite the fact that we are only at the beginning of the 5G era, some say it already is a big failure. It is easy to argue such views are premature, if predictable. The networks themselves are under construction, and such massive projects take years to complete. So availability is limited.
And past experience suggests it can take more than eight years for a new, next-generation mobile network to reach half of all active subscriptions. In many markets, 5G deployment has not yet begun. In other markets adoption is in single digits.
The point is that we really cannot assess 5G impact, yet.
Furthermore, the specific deployment circumstances also condition the degree of user experience improvement. Using low-band spectrum means high degrees of coverage, but little improvement in speed or user experience. Mid-band spectrum provides a better balance of coverage and experience boosts, while high-band (millimeter wave frequencies) provides the biggest qualitative changes in experienced speed.
But those are only the technology attributes. Many of the expected new use cases are only in early stages as well, as are the business models that accompany them. Devices, apps and content ecosystems must be created, not simply the access infrastructure. Complementary developments, such as edge computing and affordable artificial intelligence also arguably must develop to make 5G a useful part of a new platform.
And most believe that the incremental new use cases are more likely to come from business applications, not consumer apps, with a couple of exceptions. 5G is likely to be important as a way of adding capacity at high-use locations and a platform for fixed access.
Analysts at Gartner use a “Hype Cycle” to explain the stages any technology tends to progress through. In the fall of 2019, Gartner suggested 5G was at the peak of inflated expectations. That would suggest we are entering the trough of disillusionment, with the plateau of productivity still five years to 10 years away.
Gartner says each Hype Cycle drills down into the five key phases, and also suggests we are headed for a period of diminished expectations, as 5G seemed to be at the peak of inflated expectations in late 2019.
But keep in mind that the Gartner hype cycle refers to enterprise technologies, not consumer technologies, and that, from year to year, the “hyped” technologies can change dramatically. That suggests there is a great deal of industry marketing hype, each year, resembling fashion more than anything else.
Innovation Trigger: A potential technology breakthrough kicks things off. Early proof-of-concept stories and media interest trigger significant publicity. Often no usable products exist and commercial viability is unproven.
Peak of Inflated Expectations: Early publicity produces a number of success stories — often accompanied by scores of failures. Some companies take action; many do not.
Trough of Disillusionment: Interest wanes as experiments and implementations fail to deliver. Producers of the technology shake out or fail. Investments continue only if the surviving providers improve their products to the satisfaction of early adopters.
Slope of Enlightenment: More instances of how the technology can benefit the enterprise start to crystallize and become more widely understood. Second- and third-generation products appear from technology providers. More enterprises fund pilots; conservative companies remain cautious.
Plateau of Productivity: Mainstream adoption starts to take off. Criteria for assessing provider viability are more clearly defined. The technology’s broad market applicability and relevance are clearly paying off.
The more useful concept is that it takes time for any important new technology to demonstrate its worth.