The 5G hype is real. People have substantial expectations of 5G, all of which vary considerably. Some expectations call for a faster form of network connectivity, while others tout the prospects of smart vehicles and satellite connectivity. But how realistic are these projections?
Current 5G technology is merely an advancement of 4G LTE in the form of non-standalone (NSA) 5G. While NSA 5G is a progression, it's far from the hype and can't support cutting-edge use cases until it fully matures. Telecom providers continue to invest billions into 5G development, but complexity has made true 5G difficult to enable, said Chris Antlitz, principal analyst at Technology Business Research.
Individuals around the world might have high expectations for 5G, but its development looks different than expected. As a result, true 5G connectivity won't be available until later this decade, leaving consumers and enterprises waiting for more.
The global 5G market is post-peak
Telecom providers have deployed 5G faster than any other previous generation of cellular technology, Antlitz said. Accelerated deployment might seem like an advantage, but this rapid growth has hurt the global 5G market.
Pressure from governments and competitors initially prompted heavyweight providers in the U.S. and China to deploy 5G on a large scale. Global 5G market spend appeared to increase around the world, but in reality, U.S. and China deployments distorted perceptions. Both markets peaked in 2021 and 2022 and have since declined. Spending in other markets around the world is now increasing, but because the two major markets have stopped investing as much, the global market is decreasing, Antlitz said.
"The magnitude and time compression were unprecedented, and it's causing the traditional curves to look a little different than they have in the past," he said.
Telecom providers struggle with 5G development
Many challenges have affected 5G development, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, complexity of 5G technology and lack of skilled 5G professionals. The rush to deploy 5G quickly meant that telecom providers released an unfinished technology that currently fails to meet many of its expectations.
For example, 5G millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum, which operates in the high-band frequency, enables high bandwidth and low latency. But telecom providers struggle to operate 5G within the spectrum.
MmWave signals can't travel for more than a few thousand feet or easily penetrate objects. When an mmWave signal tries to pass through an object, it sometimes bounces off the obstacle and interferes with other signals, which degrades network quality. Moreover, not only is 5G difficult to enable, but few engineers have the skills to operate a 5G network. Telecom providers are working to overcome these pitfalls, but as a result, 5G is taking longer to develop.
"We'll get there, but the pace of breakthroughs is nowhere near the timelines that people are putting out. We have a long way to go," Antlitz said.
SA 5G is further behind
Most 5G deployments currently operate as NSA instead of standalone (SA) 5G. NSA 5G is faster and has more capacity than 4G LTE, but it doesn't operate on a real 5G core. Instead, NSA is more like a bandage, Antlitz said, because it uses existing 4G infrastructure to support 5G. Only 20% of global providers have released SA 5G, he added.
SA 5G networks provide many capabilities, such as network slicing, ultralow latency, fast connectivity and other features, but few telecom providers have deployed it because there's little incentive to do so.
"There's no real reason to make this big shift to SA unless the ROI is there, and the ROI is still not there," Antlitz said.
Telecom providers have invested billions of dollars in 5G spectrum and infrastructure, only to fail at generating ROI. 5G does have some promising active use cases, such as fixed wireless access. But many of 5G's hyped use cases, such as vehicle-to-vehicle connectivity, satellite calling and metaverse networking with augmented reality, will take time to become reality.
6G unlikely to arrive anytime soon
Rumblings of 6G have emerged in the telecom industry, but providers aren't prepared for its release, especially given the current challenges of 5G. 6G is markedly more complicated than 5G, Antlitz said, so telecom providers will focus their attention on true 5G before working on 6G.
In the future, when 5G fully develops and providers begin to develop 6G, it's more likely that providers will release 5G Advanced -- a more enhanced version of 5G -- and market and release it as 6G, Antlitz said.
5G to enable digital transformation with other technologies
5G is currently two to three years behind where experts predicted it would be in its development cycle, Antlitz said. By the end of the decade, however, enterprises will use 5G in conjunction with other advanced technologies to drive digital transformation, he said.
Some of this integration is already happening now. For example, AI and machine learning algorithms can help enterprises make 5G more energy-efficient and sustainable. Edge computing, a mechanism that moves data processing closer to the end user, enables 5G networks to process data more quickly and seamlessly.
"It's not just 5G," Antlitz said. "It's 5G plus edge computing, plus AI, plus all these technologies. [Enterprises are] using those tools together to drive digital transformation in a way that we've been hyping it."