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Gartner report provides reality check on the 5G hype

The next generation of cellular technology, 5G, is nearing peak hype status, according to a Gartner report. But real, widespread adoption is still several years away.

The 5G hype is real. Just look at Gartner's latest Hype Cycle for Enterprise Networking, which placed 5G services at the Peak of Inflated Expectations. At this point in the hype cycle, 5G is riddled with overenthusiasm and unrealistic projections, according to Gartner. A barrage of media and marketing has spotlighted 5G technology, which has seen some success but more setbacks, the report said.

While scaling peaks of inflated expectations sounds breathtaking, 5G still has to survive the descent. In other words: What goes up, must come down.

As Gartner noted, 5G is five to 10 years away from the Plateau of Productivity, a phase in the hype cycle in which the real-world benefits of a technology are demonstrated and accepted, and the rapid growth phase of adoption begins. Again, five to 10 years away. By 2023, 5G coverage will be as widespread as 4G or Long Term Evolution (LTE) are today, Gartner analyst Andrew Lerner said.

"The user expectations and the vendor marketing create a huge delta from what the actual availability of product is," he said. "5G's going to come; it's going to be here. It's not going to be here as fast as everybody says."

For historical context, 4G was peaking a decade ago, and software-defined networking (SDN) was at the peak six years ago. This year, however, Gartner declared SDN obsolete as some technologies don't even survive the full hype cycle.

The carrier conundrum -- cost, use case and ROI

5G is a cool technology, Lerner added, and the networking industry does, in fact, need the next-generation cellular standard. But carriers have some work to do first -- a lot of work.

Currently, less than 10% of carriers worldwide have started commercial construction of their 5G networks. By 2025, less than 45% of communication service providers globally will have launched a commercial 5G network, Lerner said. For carriers, cost is proving to be a problem.

5G's going to come; it's going to be here. It's not going to be here as fast as everybody says.
Andrew LernerAnalyst, Gartner

"[5G is] really expensive to roll out for carriers," Lerner said. "They have to drive trucks to poles and put antennas on -- and that costs a ton of money. And the carriers won't do that unless there's an ROI. So, a lot of carriers are not making the investments as aggressively."

Despite the 5G hype, the technology still lacks a "killer use case" that 4G and LTE can't handle, Lerner said. In other words, 4G and LTE are still sufficient for many customers. And, without a killer 5G use case, ROI will be difficult for carriers.

"There isn't that killer use case, so there isn't that ROI," Lerner said.

5G hype needs viable use cases

Some 5G use cases have emerged, and some will be adopted faster than others. Fixed wireless connections, for example, is an early use case that comprises wireless systems and devices in fixed locations, such as offices and homes. Additionally, 5G will be available initially in some small target markets, especially for testing purposes.

Much has also been written and explored concerning the marriage of 5G and IoT. The two technologies could converge to establish a high-speed network infrastructure that includes faster connectivity among IoT devices, lower latency and reduced power consumption. 5G and IoT could also support the development of autonomous and connected vehicles.

Fueling the 5G hype even further, some industry observers have mused that 5G could usurp older Wi-Fi, wireless and WAN connectivity options. While those prophecies may prove to be true someday, they won't be true for the next four or five years, Lerner said. Dense, global 5G coverage, even in populated areas, is several years away, he added.

According to the Gartner Hype Cycle report, the International Telecommunication Union and other standards bodies are expected to ratify full 5G technical standards by 2020. In a separate Gartner report, the analyst firm forecast worldwide 5G wireless network infrastructure revenue will reach $4.2 billion in 2020, an 89% increase from 2019 revenue of $2.2 billion.

5G hype
5G services approach the apex of Gartner's Hype Cycle for Enterprise Networking, 2019.

Vetting suppliers and standards

Gartner advised enterprises to incorporate realistic networking assumptions by working with network service providers to identify 5G availability at specific locations. Also, businesses should identify locations where 5G millimeter wave signals may encounter challenges from obstacles such as building walls, window glass and heavy foliage.

A key point highlighted in the Gartner report is 5G technologies will include proprietary pre-standard specifications from service providers as well as standards-based technology, such as 5G New Radio. As the 5G standard is finalized, businesses will need to wade through a minefield of proprietary, standards and pre-standard specifications.

"To identify the likelihood of potentially costly enterprise hardware upgrades, require service providers to detail their migration path from early commercial 5G services to supporting standards-based 5G services," the report read. "Specify whether a hardware, firmware or software upgrade will be needed for standards compliance."

In addition, proprietary technology used for pre-standard network services may limit a business customer's inter-carrier interoperability. As a result, the report said, businesses with pre-standard deployment plans for 5G must vet suppliers carefully.

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