In Business Model, Internet Access, Mobile, Spectrum

It is clear why infrastructure suppliers tout all the new features 5G can provide, compared to 4G: it helps such firms sell their products. It also is obvious why mobile operators tout 5G: it helps them convince regulators to commit additional spectrum (capacity) for use by mobile operators.

None of those motivations are inherently troubling. But consumer end users probably are thinking–at least early on–that there has been too much hype, even if, at some level, the actual value of 5G seems pretty obvious, if somewhat pedestrian.

One obvious reason for consumer ambivalence about 5G is that, in the early days, performance has been so varied. When using low-band spectrum, 5G experience is barely differentiated from 4G, if there is any experiential difference.

Then there is the natural decrease in experienced performance for any new network that becomes more highly loaded. Any new network will operate quite fast if there are few users on the network. As scale is obtained, average speeds will tend to slow.

Finally, no new mobile generation has immediately produced all the new and exciting potential new apps and use cases that are possible. All that takes time and ecosystem development. We might argue that many expected 3G use cases only developed on 4G networks. The same might happen with many anticipated 4G use cases, which will be commercialized only on 5G networks.

But that also implies that many touted 5G use cases will not arrive until later, as well.

In a larger sense, we should ignore the hype. Home broadband providers no longer heavily promote “new use cases” and “new apps” as key features of their ever-faster networks. To be sure, internet service providers are likely to emphasize the quality advantages of faster networks for video streaming or multi-player games.

But most gigabit and faster networks do not improve any single user’s experience beyond a certain point, other than to assure that enough bandwidth is available for each app running at the same time.

Instead, the value of faster connections is the ability to support multiple devices and users on a single connection. No single streaming instance or even online multiplayer games actually require gigabit capacity.

At this point, the value users have come to expect is simply “faster speeds” or “more capacity.”

Mobile networks, at least for consumers, essentially wind up with the same approach, but without the “multiple user” advantages. Value lies in supplying enough bandwidth to support the user’s apps on the mobile device.

And, as always, “more capacity” always is needed as developers start designing their apps on the assumption that plenty of bandwidth is always available.

For mobile operators and infra suppliers, the value of 5G is lower cost per bit, as was the case for 4G.

Device density, lower latency, network slicing and lower energy consumption also have implications for enterprise use cases and operating costs in general, to be sure. But the mobile business is built on consumer users, even as enterprise use cases potentially exist.

5G value for consumers is analogous to the value of higher-speed home broadband networks: more capacity (speed). For home broadband accounts, the advantage is user experience when multiple users and devices are supported.

For mobile users the value is user experience on a single device, but also, for some, the ability to use the mobile connection as the replacement for home broadband.

Even in the absence of new use cases and apps, faster is better. Mobile next-generation networks are the equivalent of new generations of Ethernet, boosing speeds from 1 Mbps to 10 Mbps to 100 Mbps to gigabit ranges.

Mobile next-generation networks are the equivalent of transceiver improvements for optical networks. In the end, the value is faster speeds and higher capacities. App development and use cases follow.

But the real value for consumers is pretty basic: faster networks. By now, people understand why they need faster speeds.

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