Top 5G limitations and challenges for businesses

Currently, the next wave of cellular technology certainly has its shortcomings. For instance, 5G faces a dearth of devices, smaller coverage ranges and hefty premiums.

All major carriers are now deploying 5G cellular technology, and businesses should consider 5G limitations as they plan for 2020 and beyond. While the technology greatly extends current 3G, 4G and LTE cellular infrastructure, 5G does have drawbacks.

Below are six different 5G limitations enterprise network teams could face with the technology.

1. 5G devices

To take advantage of the full suite of 5G capabilities, a 5G device is required at both ends of the connection. On the client side, a 5G handset for mobile communications or a 5G IoT device is needed. On the carrier side, 5G antennas and infrastructure are needed.

Android smartphones currently have the advantage for 5G phones as a few handsets are available. Apple phone designs have shifted between 5G modem vendors, and the latest reports indicate the market may see a 5G-capable iPhone in the fall of 2020.

Some 5G IoT devices and connected devices are available now, but many IoT vendors see 5G opening up 3G and 4G spectrum for IoT as smartphones transition to 5G. IoT could have more freedom in the lower-speed bands of 3G and 4G as carriers begin closing down those frequencies for cellphones.

2. Proximity

Proximity is another weakness that businesses must consider. 5G will primarily use millimeter wavelengths, which are smaller than 3G and 4G, and they don't travel as far. While the 5G coverage profile is smaller, the 5G signal can carry more data. To combat this limitation, carriers are planning a much larger array of antennas to provide enough coverage.

5g limitations

Beamforming will also be used with these larger arrays to help the 5G system overcome more obstacles by enabling packets to traverse multiple routes to reach a client. Businesses that hope to use beamforming technology will need to investigate their carriers' 5G coverage maps. Carriers are deploying 5G now, with increasing coverage in urban areas; 5G network deployment will expand over time to more rural or remote locations.

3. Spectrum and bandwidth

Spectrum will be a key consideration in choosing both carriers and equipment. Much of the 5G deployment will be over existing 3G and 4G spectrum, enabling backward compatibility with older devices. However, a new opportunity is emerging with 600 MHz spectrum that has just been opened. T-Mobile is making a strong play for this space in the U.S., but that comes with a compatibility price as specialized equipment will be required and some devices designed for 600 MHz may not share other more traditional spectrum ranges.

One of the ways 5G will overcome the bandwidth limitations of today's systems is through network slicing. Network slicing takes a page from the virtualization trend that has driven greater density, capacity and capability in data centers by "slicing" resources up in order to share more idle resources and increase overall usage. With network slicing, 5G carriers will have better utilization of their networks, handling more users and transferring more data simultaneously.

4. Rural and remote locations

Rural and remote locations probably won't have 5G service until well after most urban buildouts have been completed. While 5G applications abound in areas such as agriculture and mining, where remote access is required, carriers might not find it cost-effective to deploy 5G in some remote locations. However, a remote rollout could happen if a large customer is willing to help cover costs or an existing cabled backhaul already exists.

Much of what will drive 5G deployment expansion will be the economic ROI that a carrier can capture from a particular geographic region. Economically speaking, the 5G sweet spot for carriers will happen at the point when they can begin to take 3G and 4G systems offline or reduce the footprint. This creates a challenge as businesses may wait until the ROI makes sense to move to 5G, but for 5G to be cost-effective, more businesses will need to have transitioned.

5. Price premium

Early purchases of 5G services initially incurred a price premium as carriers tried to offset the significant capital investments in these new technologies. 5G is expensive to deploy, so carriers tried to segment the market early in order to optimize their short-term revenue. Eventually, broader competitive pressures required carriers to reduce 5G prices in order to maintain competitiveness. At this point, Verizon appears to be the only U.S. vendor with an explicit 5G premium, although others may have rolled 5G access into the higher-priced cellular packages, pushing up the typical monthly bill.

6. Security

Finally, 5G will have a different security model than 3G and 4G as it will include new security capabilities. The good news for businesses is carriers will handle most of this implementation. But, for businesses that build network services on top of 5G cellular networks, understanding these new security models will be critical to ensure they are building comprehensive, secure services.

While 5G limitations are evident, the long-term benefits of 5G will outweigh the disadvantages. And, on balance, 5G will introduce new opportunities for businesses to become more agile and competitive over time.

This was last published in September 2020

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