There’s little doubt about what an incredibly positive impact technology has had on our lives. Nevertheless, it’s also important to remember that, when it comes to big technology trends, sometimes a bit of skepticism is justified.
Let’s talk about 5G, for example. After all, weren’t we promised fully autonomous cars, robotic surgery, smart cities, and all kinds of other futuristic-sounding applications from the latest generation cellular networks?
The simple truth is the telecom industry touted what now look like almost laughable examples of what 5G was supposed to be able to do in the early days of the technology’s development and deployment.
Their goal, of course, was to get us all excited for the potential of this once-a-decade transition to next-generation wireless connectivity. Unfortunately, all those efforts really did is completely skew people’s perspectives on the impact that 5G could have. But that certainly doesn’t mean 5G has been a total bust.
Far from it, in fact. The problem is, most of the impact has been in areas the industry didn’t initially expect as well as other places that aren’t as obvious to normal consumers.
One of the biggest hits so far of the 5G era is something that’s officially called fixed wireless access (FWA) but is more commonly known as wireless broadband. Basically, this is a wireless replacement for typical cable-based internet service.
Initially, many people didn’t give much thought to it because 5G was primarily associated with our smartphones and other mobile devices. Plus, as a replacement for existing technology, it’s not exactly the most exciting or groundbreaking application.
But FWA is quickly becoming a big hit with consumers all over the country because it’s a simpler, easier and, in many cases, faster way to get your home connected to the internet. Instead of having to drill holes into your house to run cables, you can simply stick a wireless router near a window in your home and set it all up yourself with a simple smartphone app (presuming the service is available where you live – a fact you can check on carriers’ websites).
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In fact, T-Mobile has over 2.6 million subscribers to its 5G broadband service, Verizon has almost 1.5 million homes and businesses for its wireless broadband, and just last week, AT&T made it official that they’ll be getting into the fixed wireless business as well.
To be clear, there are faster options for home internet – particularly with fiber-based services – but for many people, 5G fixed wireless access is good enough. Plus, it’s often able to reach out to rural locations that can’t easily be served with other options.
Another burgeoning opportunity is for 5G-equipped PCs (a topic I wrote about in a previous column). Now that everyone is starting to travel again, but while we’re still all doing Teams, Zoom, Webex, etc. meetings on our PCs in all kinds of locations, the need for and value of these devices is becoming very apparent.
Unfortunately, there are still challenges with pricing and availability of 5G-equipped PCs, but I’m hopeful we’ll see significant improvements later this year.
One of the most widely touted capabilities for 5G was expected to be around connected devices and sensors. The idea was/is that the enhanced speed and bandwidth of 5G versus 4G would unleash a torrent of cellular-connected devices from AR and VR headsets to cars, home appliances and more.
In truth, some of those efforts are starting to happen, but most are more niche applications for specific vertical industries such as manufacturing, healthcare, agriculture, etc. Many of these projects are starting to make an impact, but just not in ways that you and I can easily see.
We’re also starting to see more 5G applications on the business side of things. A number of companies are starting to set up what are known as “private 5G” networks that only employees or work machines can get access to. In many cases, these are being used to supplement or enhance existing Wi-Fi networks because they can provide important security and performance benefits.
Ironically, it’s on the smartphone side – where expectations were the highest – that we’ve arguably seen the least visible impact from 5G. For example, as many have noticed, download speeds in many situations haven’t been that much different than 4G. But even here, it’s important to note that average download speeds are improving (in some places, dramatically so) and it’s virtually impossible to find a non-5G equipped phone.
In other words, the impact is real, just a bit subtler than we would have hoped.
Looking forward, while we may not see any true killer applications for 5G in the near term, there are glimmers of hope. Several important underlying technologies, including something called network slicing, are starting to be put into place by the big US carriers. These network-based improvements are expected to create new kinds of 5G-specific services for businesses and consumers.
Plus, we’re starting to see wider deployment of new frequencies for cellular networks – particularly something called C-Band or mid-band – that should start making 5G download speeds much faster.
While that may not be as exciting as the science fiction-like capabilities that the industry touted, it does provide real-world benefits that we can all appreciate.