One of the hardest things, as a technology reporter, is explaining to viewers/readers new tech trends that, right now, don’t have a tangible application in mind.
This is the case with 5G, a topic that draws either yawns or anger from our audience.
The anger comes, mostly, from those who feel they don’t get adequate 4 or even 3G right now – and that telecom firms are more eager to charge crazy fees for people in cities than they are to properly connect those in more rural areas. They’re absolutely right, of course.
Analyst Benedict Evans has written a thoughtful post on where 5G is right now, where it is headed, and, most impressively, what it actually makes possible. His overriding point, I think, is that creating a better, faster network is always a good idea, even if the uses for it aren’t yet clear. We’ve seen this with every upgrade to date – from 2G, upwards. He writes:
With each of these surges in speed, two things happen. First, the things we’re already doing get smoother and easier and quicker, and also get more capable (or bloated). Pages get more images and become more dynamic. Second, new things become possible. You could not have done Flickr or Google Maps on dialup, and you could not have done Netflix (or at least not well) on the broadband of 2003. In the following generation, Snapchat only worked when you could presume that all of your users can connect at tens of Mbits/sec (when they’re not on home WiFi, of course). That in turn means networks with the overall capacity to give that speed not just to one person at a time but to lots of people, and network infrastructure that can do that at a vaguely reasonable price. If you’d shown Snapchat to a mobile network executive in the early 2000s, their hair would have gone white – there was just no way the early 3G network could have supported that kind of load.
In the same way, then, 5G speeds, and ever-faster home broadband, will mean that existing applications will get richer, and also that new applications will emerge – new Flickrs, YouTubes or Snapchats. We don’t know what yet, exactly, though we can make some early guesses, but the creativity of entrepreneurs and platforms and the choices of consumers will decide. This is the great thing about the decentralized, permissionless innovation of the internet – telcos don’t need to decide in advance what the use cases are, any more than Intel had to decide what the use cases for faster CPUs would be.
I hope I’m not quoting more than is polite of Evans’ post – I do it only to give a snippet of his insight. He concludes by saying that, essentially, the “killer app” of 5G is that it just is.