How Putin’s war ended the 5G dream

Rising energy costs and customer apathy have stifled any hopes for a mobile internet revolution.

EE’s 5G network was launched with a performance from Stormzy on a floating stage right in front of Tower Bridge. It was clear in its claims about its new mobile technology.

Marc Allera, boss, stated that 5G would create new experiences using augmented reality and make customers’ lives easier. It will also help to launch new businesses that aren’t possible.

This triumphalism will be missing almost four years later as the industry gathers in Barcelona for its annual junket – the first Mobile World Congress to take place since global travel restrictions were lifted.

After Vladimir Putin’s invasion in Ukraine, rising energy prices, a shortage of consumer technology and low interest from business customers have all contributed to the rapid decline of the 5G revolution.

William Webb, the ex-director of technology at Ofcom, says that 5G has not worked and that the industry cannot repeat the same mistakes.

Webb published a six-year-old analysis called The 5G Myth in which he argued that the industry was prone to hubris and had been barking up the wrong trees. Although few people would have agreed to Webb’s critique in 2017, it now appears that they are more resolute than ever.

Consumer apathy is at the root of 5G’s perceived flaws. Consumer apathy is the root of 5G’s perceived shortcomings. While 4G and 2G brought us global mass-market digital mobile phones, 5G offers consumers more benefits.

Even Vodafone joined the party as a party-pooper. Santiago Tenorio is a fellow director and network architect at Vodafone. He says that the initial years of any new technology are often disappointing.

He says, “At every new ‘G’ beginning, the reality wasn’t following the hype.”

“With 3G/4G, we were promised it would transform society and completely change the way we live.

“But three years later, your phone still looks the same, with only the icon changing. The hype has become complete disappointment and people think we are doing this for nothing.”

Kester Mann, a CCS Insight analyst, agrees that 5G was overhyped.

He says, “I believe this is partly due to the industry getting ahead of itself and getting overly excited and promising more than it can deliver.”

It is a good technology, there’s no question about that. It works and we have seen performance improvements… but we haven’t seen any new exciting apps emerge like we did during the 4G era. It hasn’t really changed anything.

According to Ofcom, only one fifth of UK phones could connect to a 5G network by 2022.

Mobile UK, the representative of network operators, stated that 5G is crucial to modern networks because it offers a massive capacity boost. Legacy and existing technologies do not have the same capacity capabilities as 5G.

Webb believes engineers, corporate strategists, and policy makers lost sight of the basics when they designed 5G.

He says that consumers want more coverage, reliability, and lower prices. “The focus should have been on increasing coverage and decreasing costs. They instead focused on getting the data 10 times faster.

Webb asserts that beyond a certain speed, people don’t care about the download speed. However, they do notice the not spots and coverage drops.

Dean Bubley from Disruptive Wireless agrees with the need to refocus the industry on lower costs and better customer experience. He has been critical of outrageous marketing claims about “the metaverse to dolphins”.

Further putting an end to network operators’ ambitions is the rise in energy costs after Putin’s invasion Ukraine.

Webb estimates that 5G’s new, power-hungry radio equipment consumes twice as much energy as 4G. There is a possibility that customers could pay higher bills for energy as it accounts for around 10% of the network’s operating costs.

This comes amid concerns about rising prices in the telecoms sector. Ofcom is concerned that operators might not exercise their rights to implement above inflation mid-contract price increases of up to 17pc. It launched an inquiry earlier in the month.

Vodafone’s Tenorio claims that 5G is actually greener than its predecessor, and that higher traffic results in higher energy costs.

He says that 5G is often blamed for rising energy costs. However, 5G was the solution, not the problem. “Per bit, it is ten times more efficient.”

This highlights the problem for operators: they must run to stay afloat. According to Ofcom, data traffic increased by 37 percent in the UK between 2020-2021 and 27 percent last year.

5G was created with new features to allow networks to escape from this trap and grow beyond the consumer market, into enterprises that do the same job as WiFi. Unfortunately, 5G has yet to fulfill this promise.

It was envisioned that companies would create their own 5G networks with dedicated spectrum to enable them to use 5G in their offices, factories, or warehouses.

Now, network builders are much more realistic. Last year, a private 5G license holder stated that the best improvement for an organisation is to improve their business’s WiFi infrastructure. WiFi is growing at an almost equal pace to 5G. Bubley points out that “the cool 5G stuff” is late and doesn’t pass through walls.

5G must reach the “real 5G” phase, which is the use of new technology from the top down to gain access to enterprise customers in order to be successful.

Iain Morris, an industry expert who wrote Light Reading, notes that “most telcos show little signs of a standalone rush.” Ericsson reports that there were only 35 5G networks globally at the end last year.

Did the UK support the wrong horse by doubling down in 5G? Webb blames the bureaucratic and political classes for their obsession with 5G.

He says, “The political pressures and cultures are naturally biased towards jumping on the latest trend.”

“They should have assisted operators and users in improving coverage and making services more reliable. These are things you can do cheaply and easily.”

As the telecoms industry descends upon Barcelona, it may be time for the industry to stop focusing on speed and instead focus on what is important to customers.

Tenorio says that 6G is too early to be discussed. “Please, can we just keep going?”

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