Technology innovation frequently suffers from hype, and the 2018 Winter Olympics in Korea provided an object lesson in overhyping 5G, the next-generation wireless telecommunication service. Spectators and athletes using the prototype network supporting the games were unable to discern any real improvement. Less than a year later, halfway around the world, AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon found themselves embroiled in a spectacular spat over “fake 5G” services.
This cycle of mismanaged expectations and disappointment is sadly familiar to those who, like me, were involved in the 3G and 4G eras. 5G has, in my view, a further disadvantage: The investment burden placed on operators to build or upgrade their network makes the whole commercial model truly unappealing. It is estimated that delivering 5G would cost $200 billion per year, in the United States alone. The $35 billion price tag operators paid for their 3G licenses in the United Kingdom in 2000 pales in comparison.
Objectively, though, 5G technology is getting there (bar the concern in various Western countries about Huawei’s intentions). Exciting use cases have also been around for a few years now, as fellow THRIVE contributor Dhananjay Shukla reminded us at the end of 2018, using the compelling example of autonomous vehicles. But if you can’t make money at it, all of this might just remain a telecom engineer’s dream — a solution looking for a problem.
Enter an improbable group of helpers to resolve this impasse: regulators. From the Autorité de Régulation des Communications Électroniques et des Postes (ARCEP) in France to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States, the Office of Communications (Ofcom) in the United Kingdom and others around the world, these regulators seem to have come up with the same big idea: mutualizing the risk by sharing scarce spectrum assets.
The most recent example of this imaginative and broadly synchronized move is taking place in the United States. After close to 7 years, the FCC gave the green light to the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) at the end of 2018. Some adventurous director might see the material for a remake of Marilyn Monroe’s 1955 hit movie: You itch for 7 years before making it happen.
This is transformative for the communications industry, not just telecom carriers. A quick look at the members of the CBRS alliance reveals a broad range of perhaps unexpected participants, from Google to Intel, from Corning (the glassmakers) to Sony (and yes, Huawei is there, too). This, in turn, points to the diversity of possible services that 5G will enable, from the industrial internet of things (IIoT) to on-campus private communications networks that provide better quality and are cheaper than WiFi.
The U.S. situation is just one of many examples where mutual ownership has been encouraged. In France, operators have been testing spectrum sharing since 2015. In the United Kingdom, Ofcom is releasing more spectrum, while Vodafone and Telefónica, picking up on the mood music, announced they are sharing more of their network assets. With more 5G spectrum auctions coming up in Europe and elsewhere, it will be interesting to see how much progress the sharing agenda will enjoy.
The approach also shows that innovation, however inventive and eye-catching, only gets true traction if a range of conditions are satisfied: technology, user interest and behavior, as well as pricing and, clearly, regulation. All these stars need to be aligned to make a constellation shine.
And with a commercial model that is now viable, I am looking forward to the major 5G showcase at the Rugby World Cup in Tokyo at the end of 2019 and hope that hype and reality will be aligned for once.