The kid is alright (it’s the folks you should worry about) – why we should lay off 5G

Has 5G failed? No. Except you’d be forgiven for thinking so given everything that has been written about it in recent months – at least among the things I read, by the people I rate (and you all read, too). It’s like the critics have seen enough, and decided, one after another, to pause the play and deliver their half-time analysis. And the verdict ain’t pretty: 5G, five years old already, has failed to deliver the industry turnaround that all the research and money – and all the big talk and hard work – was for. 

And so the 5G backlash is in full swing. The defenders are lame, the attackers are lost, and the manager is crook. And the crowds haven’t even turned up. The commentary says this (united) team is headed for a beating; that telecoms is dead. The market over-promised and under-delivered, and 5G is a crying shame. And probably this is right; these pundits know their corporate bloodsport. But it is not half time; it’s mid-season with plenty to play for, and there is confusion because it sounds like the ball is getting the (verbal) kicking.

Actually, for the most part, the tragedy of the spectacle is that the squad’s own internal strife has spilled onto the pitch. This technology called 5G – the ball in this stretched analogy – is only the plaything. And it’s not torn, or flat, or egg-shaped. It is perfectly good. In the end – and as written, in fact – the criticism is all about the industry-in-company that produced it: the Nike, the Puma; the Mitre. In other words, the mobile operators and telecoms vendors that are struggling for growth and slashing jobs. 

It is a telco-centric view from a telco-centric crowd. This is not a criticism. Who is better placed to judge the telecoms industry than telecoms hacks and telecoms shrinks? But this is not the way to judge 5G, which is mostly for enterprises, and cannot be considered – from the point of view of its relevance, application, or success – only from a telco-centric position. The same critics say as much – and might just as easily comment on how rival teams, of system integrators and cloud providers, are jinking up the pitch. 

It’s a good sport and a good league, and actually – to trash the original analogy – the players are being loaned and subbed across every team, anyway. The problem is that this particular crop of players, raised in the telco academy, and (sometimes) progressive and dynamic in their own ways, has more riding on the result – while most of the rest play any number of team sports, and just find 5G to be a useful extra skill. You get the point: as an urgent revenue driver, 5G matters most (completely and utterly) to telecoms.

So yeah, lay off the tech; or know anyway that it is not 5G’s fault or failure – which is just about what 5G means to telecoms, and why it means so much. There is a distinction, and it should be clear. This desperation explains why telecoms sought to sell a technology five years before it was ready, and is now reckoning with missed targets and shattered illusions. What we are seeing – that job cuts are somehow down to the failure of 5G – is the narrative result of that. When it is just down to hard-times for telecoms.

So again, leave 5G alone; it has done nothing wrong, except to carry the burden of a desperate market. 5G is a good technology. How good and what-for remain big questions, still being resolved. This is because, as discussed, the buzz was so premature. It is still half-time, mid-season; the transfer window will open again. 5G is a developing technology and many of its original promises will not be commercially available (and properly assessable) until the ultra-everything high- and low-end functions in Release 18 find their way into chipsets and modules.

Which won’t happen until 2028, probably. 5G will not be as “seamless as Wi-Fi” until after 2030, the consensus goes. The market will know very well, by then, how successful it is – but its success will be gauged by enterprises and not by telecoms. And in the meantime, for lots of other markets, 5G still holds great promise – for practical, maybe even transformational, usage. Despite the current telco-centric view of its success, 5G remains a hopeful technology. The kid is alright; it’s the folks you should worry about. 

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