Did 5G finally catch-up with the hype at this year’s MWC?

John Lillistone, head of capacity & coverage products at Arqiva, discusses whether this years MWC provided a clear indication that we are truly at the beginning of the 5G era

John Lillistone ArqivaIf you have attended an MWC conference in earnest over the last few years, you would have been helpless to escape some wild crystal-ball thinking around the rollout of 5G. However, this year, reality finally seemed to move closer to the 5G hyperbole.

Ahead of the show, Samsung launched its first 5G enabled smartphone at its Unpacked event, and as you would expect, was at MWC proudly showing off its capabilities. But they were faced with competition – Huawei revealed its foldable Mate X 5G smartphone, LG launched its own 5G device the V50, and Xiaomi detailed its Mi Mix 5 5G.

So, does this explosion of cutting-edge devices, signal the start of the 5G era?

Network Upgrades
To answer this question, you first need to look at the networks responsible for delivering 5G services across the country and consider whether the infrastructure can handle the demand that will inevitably be placed on it. As with the roll-out of 4G, 5G connectivity will involve thousands of infrastructure upgrade projects across the UK, and this isn’t something that can happen overnight. The work is expensive and highly technical, and operators are forced to follow a strict demand strategy as a result.

Initially, we can expect 5G to be rolled-out on a restricted basis, appearing first in the UK’s major urban centres where population size and demand can warrant superfast connectivity. Eventually, 5G will be extended to less dense areas, but there are many challenges to be solved around rural connectivity before this will happen at scale. The reality is that widespread 5G connectivity is likely to happen over a number of years rather than the next 12 months.

Monetising 5G
There are also a number of pragmatic considerations around the roll-out of 5G, namely the financial implications and how to make it commercially viable. It has been estimated that rollout costs across Europe could reach £400bn. At MWC, the GSMA released its new ‘Mobile Industry Manifesto for Europe’, calling for Governments and regulators to support operators in delivering 5G.

The demand for 5G services will undoubtedly rocket after the smartphone launches at MWC, however a recent report from PWC suggested that only one third of consumers would be willing to pay more for it. The challenge for the industry therefore, is how to introduce the technology at a reasonable cost for UK consumers, and still secure a return of investment on the infrastructure costs. This is likely to be a delicate decision-making process that will take some time. Once this is determined, operators will then have to translate the benefits of 5G to consumers in order to justify the costs – there is still a long way to go!

The launch of so many 5G devices at MWC is fantastic news for the industry – it highlights the demand for 5G connectivity, and gives operators, network providers, regulators, and governments license to start working on the infrastructure upgrades that will make it a reality. Indeed, we can expect that some consumers will be using 5G as soon as this year.

However, the industry must remain grounded. Rather than staging a post-show revolution, the roll-out of 5G will follow an evolutionary pattern, and the pragmatic decisions made now will have a big impact on its success in the future.