There is no doubt about the very positive impact of technology on our lives. However, it’s also important to remember that when it comes to big tech trends, sometimes a little skepticism is warranted.
Let’s talk about 5G, for example. After all, aren’t we promised self-driving cars, robotic surgery, smart cities, and all sorts of other futuristic applications from the latest generation of cellular networks?
The simple fact is that the telecom industry touted what now seem 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 about the possibility of this once-in-a-decade transition to the next generation of wireless connectivity. Unfortunately, all of these efforts are really completely skewing people’s views of the impact that 5G can have. But that certainly didn’t mean that 5G was in complete meltdown.
On the contrary, in fact. The problem is that most of the impact has been in areas the industry did not initially anticipate as well as other places that are not obvious to ordinary consumers.
5G at home
One of the biggest successes so far in the 5G era is something officially called Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) but more commonly known as wireless broadband. Basically, this is a wireless alternative to the typical cable-based internet service.
At first, many people didn’t think much of it because 5G was primarily associated with our smartphones and other mobile devices. Plus, as an alternative to existing technology, it’s not the most exciting or groundbreaking application.
But FWA quickly became a hit with consumers across the country because it’s a simpler, easier, and in many cases, faster way to get your home online. Instead of having to drill holes in your home to run the cables, you can simply stick a wireless router near a window in your house and set it up yourself using a simple smartphone app (assuming the service is available where you live – a fact you can check on carrier websites) .
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In fact, T-Mobile has more than 2.6 million subscribers to its 5G broadband service, Verizon has nearly 1.5 million homes and businesses to its wireless broadband, and just last week, AT&T announced that it was 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. In addition, it is often able to access rural locations that are not easily offered with other options.
PC and 5G
Another booming opportunity is computers with 5G technology (a topic I wrote about in a previous column). Now that everyone is starting to travel again, but while we’re still doing Teams meetings, Zoom, Webex, etc. on our computers in all sorts of locations, the need and value of these devices is very clear.
Unfortunately, there are still challenges with pricing and availability of 5G-enabled PCs, but I’m hopeful we’ll see big improvements later this year.
One of the most widely touted capabilities of 5G was expected to be around connected devices and sensors. The idea was that the improved speed and bandwidth of 5G versus 4G would unleash an avalanche of cellular-connected devices from AR and VR headsets to cars, home appliances, and more.
In fact, some of these efforts are starting to happen, but most of them are niche applications for specific vertical industries like manufacturing, healthcare, agriculture, and so on. Many of these projects are starting to make an impact, but just not in the ways that I can easily see.
5G is in the works
We’re also starting to see more applications of 5G on the business side of things. A number of companies are starting to create what are known as “private 5G” networks that only employees or work devices can access. In many cases, these are used to supplement or improve existing Wi-Fi networks because they can provide important security and performance benefits.
Ironically, it’s on the smartphone side – where expectations are higher – that we’ve arguably seen the least visible impact from 5G. For example, as many have noted, download speeds in many situations weren’t much different from 4G. But even here, it’s important to note that average download speeds are improving (in some places, quite dramatically) and it’s virtually impossible to find a phone without 5G.
In other words, the effect is real, but a little subtler than we’d hoped.
Looking ahead, while we may not see any real killer applications of 5G in the near term, there are glimmers of hope. Several important underlying technologies, including what is called network slicing, are beginning to be put into practice by major US carriers. These network-based improvements are expected to create new types of 5G-specific services for businesses and consumers.
In addition, we’re starting to see a wider spread of new frequencies for cellular networks — particularly something called C-band, or mid-band — which should start to make 5G download speeds much faster.
While this may not be as exciting as the sci-fi-like capabilities the industry has touted, it does provide real-world benefits that we can all appreciate.