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Conceptualizing the Transition to 5G Beyond Speeds and Standards

5G represents a change in the way we think about infrastructure and who owns it, and the entrepreneurship that emerges from these new approaches.

While attending several telecommunications conferences and trade shows throughout the past couple of years, I’ve heard a wide variety of opinions on how the industry should define the separation between fourth-generation (4G) and fifth-generation (5G) connectivity services. A majority of those opinions see 5G as a new product — a service that will emerge out of a mish-mash of higher speeds, higher capacity, lower latency, and some sort of new standard, with an established release date and a brand-new audience waiting to consume those services. 5G is faster, it’s more reliable, it enables more products and technologies, and creates new markets.

The people who define 5G this way aren’t wrong, they’re just basing their definition on history. The jump from 3G to 4G (now almost a decade ago) was much easier to comprehend. Almost everyone agrees that the 4G revolution was driven by consumer demand for mobile video. Despite the broadcast and media industry’s attempt to narrate cable-cutting trends as a result of the economic downturn, some very smart marketing professionals at a handful of telco and software companies gathered overwhelming evidence that a new generation of consumers wanted to watch Netflix and YouTube on their smartphones and iPads, wherever they happened to be at any particular time, with no restrictions on content access — all for less than $50 a month. In the end, the transition from 3G to 4G was about generating new revenue (young people) from video in a new way (mobile streaming).

Looking at history, it makes sense to define 5G as product-driven. Swap out mobile video for virtual reality, the smart city, and the self-driving car; slap a release date on it and you’ve got yourself a next-generation service, right?

Some, like me, say “not so fast.” Others, also like me, say that the transition to 5G has already happened, because 5G is more about an evolution of telecommunications business models and thinking than it is about products and services — more B2B than B2C. 5G could be defined as a change in the way we think about infrastructure and who owns that infrastructure and the entrepreneurship that emerges from these new approaches. This change in thinking couldn’t have been more clearly displayed than it was at the DC5G Summit that we launched in October 2017. We hosted cellular operators, satellite operators, industry organizations, government agencies, lawyers, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), software, and hardware companies — all with very different views on the realities of this transition — in the same room, on the same stage, to share new ideas about all things 5G.

We heard technical arguments about how 5G data traffic could most effectively travel through an evolved infrastructure ecosystem of macro towers, small cells, satellites, clouds, and mobile edge computing networks. We heard legal and regulatory arguments about the importance of shared spectrum and shared Infrastructure. We even heard arguments in favor of shared and common spectrum allocation instead of exclusive and non-exclusive spectrum allocation methods, promoting use cases that aim to illustrate neutral host advantages.

We were able to hear these arguments because, despite them, we are all in agreement on the most important realities surrounding 5G: change is happening, now. The transition to 5G is going to require significant investment in infrastructure, product development and network security. The rate of change will be determined by the outcome of legal disputes and government policy. Last, but not least (and some could argue the most important of all points of agreement), the reward for investing in 5G is significant, but only attainable through meaningful and diverse partnerships because nobody can foot the financial, political and technical bill on their own — not even Amazon.

Like 4G, 5G’s evolution and development will be use-case driven, but the use-case studies will attempt to convey much more complex information to a wider set of consumers and markets. The transition to 5G is creating a brand new, educated market — and learning how to explain the benefits of a “smart city” to both wealthy universities and school boards in rural, underserved communities, and teaching both how to own and manage their own infrastructure. Businesses are already interested in 5G because it promises to enable efficiencies through advanced data applications and automation. Some businesses are already invested. But, this also creates a cultural challenge unique to 5G in convincing the public that this change will create more employment and economic wealth than it will render obsolete. The change to 5G also requires the telecommunications industry to ease the public’s worry about placing themselves and their data out there on an infinitely interconnected network that has historically been susceptible to a wide range of criminal cyber activity.

Ultimately, the transition to 5G represents so much more than a new number. It might even be a transition away from transitions. In fact, nobody has attempted to define the end of this change. We don’t even know what marks the end of 4G LTE, as many rightfully believe we’re not even close to the peak of 4G business and opportunity. By the time we’ve realized some of these changes to the way we define the next generation of connectivity, we’ll forget which number we’re on. 5G could become a term as overused and misunderstood as the Internet of Things (IOT). Regardless, it’s better to think of 5G as a product of products or a network of networks or a business model of business models, rather than a singular vision of any of these things with a fast-approaching rollout date. VS