Do we really need 5G?

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, 4G is really pretty good. It makes quite a few useful things possible:

  • fast general Internet access (on the order of DSL)
  • download and even upload of high-resolution video
  • always-on behavior (with batteries lasting the entire day)
  • apps relying on location and identity (technically a smartphone feature).

As a testament to this success, there are well over 700 commercial 4G networks deployed across the world, covering more than 80 percent of the global population.

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So, why do we really need 5G?

It’s interesting to mention that 5G wasn’t developed, like 3G and 4G, due to a breakthrough technology. The 5G standardization work actually commenced with a study of use cases that required more than 4G can deliver.

Strangely, 5G is exclusively presented in the popular media as being just a lightning-fast replacement for 4G. Of course, this is true! 5G’s eMBB (enhanced Mobile BroadBand) mode can be 10-100 times faster than that of 4G!

But does the average cellular subscriber really need this speed upgrade, or would truly delivering on 4G (100 Mbps) suffice?

For example, marketing campaigns tell us that, with 5G, you can download an hour-long HD movie in less than 10 seconds! But, if 4G is fast enough to stream UHD in real-time, why would you pay more to download a movie and use up local storage capacity?

Perhaps 5G is actually needed for entirely different reasons!

Can mobile operators afford 5G?

Due to this general lack of strong motivation to improve on 4G speeds, multiple surveys have found that most subscribers are not willing to pay much more for 5G service as compared to 4G.

But, for communication service providers, upgrading from 4G to 5G is going to be hugely expensive – much more expensive than the upgrade from 3G to 4G! So, why would any mobile operator want to upgrade to 5G?

One reason is that 4G capacity is maxed out due to the work from home (WFH) trend. 4G’s largest system bandwidth is 20 MHz, which translates to a total of about 100 Mbps per cell. Operators have been busy adopting multi-user MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output) and Carrier Aggregation (CA) to overcome this limitation, but this can be messy (somewhat like…