There’s no doubting the incredibly positive impact technology has had on our lives. Still, it’s also important to remember that when it comes to big tech trends, sometimes a bit of skepticism is warranted.
Let’s talk about 5G, for example. After all, weren’t we promised fully self-driving cars, robotic surgery, smart cities and all sorts of other futuristic-looking applications from next-generation cellular networks?
The simple truth is that the telecom industry touted what now look like almost laughable examples of what 5G was supposed to be able to do in the early development and deployment of the technology.
Their aim, of course, was to get us excited about the potential of this decade-long transition to next-gen wireless connectivity. Unfortunately, all of these efforts have really completely skewed people’s perspectives on the impact 5G could have. But that certainly doesn’t mean 5G was a total failure.
Far from it, in fact. The problem is that most of the impact has occurred in areas the industry didn’t initially expect, as well as other places that aren’t as obvious to normal consumers.
5G at home
One of the biggest hits so far in the 5G era is something officially called Fixed Wireless Access (FWA), but more commonly referred to as wireless broadband. Basically, it’s a wireless replacement for typical cable internet service.
Initially, many people didn’t give it much thought because 5G was mostly associated with our smartphones and other mobile devices. Plus, as a replacement for existing technology, it’s not exactly the most exciting or revolutionary app.
But FWA is quickly becoming a big hit with consumers across the country because it’s a simpler, easier, and in many cases faster way to connect your home to the Internet. Instead of having to drill holes in your house to run cables, you can just stick a wireless router near a window in your house and set it all up yourself with a simple smartphone app (assuming the service is available where you live – a fact you can check on the carriers’ 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 for its wireless broadband, and last week AT&T officially announced that they would enter the fixed wireless sector. also.
To be clear, there are faster options for home internet – especially with fiber-based services – but for many people, 5G fixed wireless access is enough. Additionally, it is often able to reach rural areas that cannot easily be served with other options.
PC and 5G
Another burgeoning opportunity involves 5G-equipped PCs (a topic I discussed in a previous column). Now that everyone is starting to travel again, but while we’re still hosting Teams, Zoom, Webex meetings, etc. on our PCs in all sorts of places, the need and value for these devices becomes very apparent.
Unfortunately, there are still challenges with pricing and availability of 5G-equipped PCs, but hopefully we’ll see some significant improvements later this year.
One of 5G’s most touted capabilities had to be connected devices and sensors. The idea was/is that the improved speed and bandwidth of 5G over 4G would unleash a torrent of cellular-connected devices, from AR and VR headsets to cars, appliances and more.
In truth, some of these efforts are starting to happen, but most are niche applications for specific vertical industries like manufacturing, healthcare, agriculture, etc. A lot of these projects are starting to have an impact, but not in a way that you and I can easily see.
5G in business
We’re also starting to see more 5G applications on the commercial side. A number of companies are starting to set up so-called “private 5G” networks that only employees or work machines can access. In many cases, these are used to supplement or enhance existing Wi-Fi networks, as they can provide significant security and performance benefits.
Ironically, it’s on the smartphone side – where expectations were highest – that we’ve arguably seen 5G’s least visible impact. For example, as many have noticed, download speeds in many situations haven’t been much different than 4G. But even here, it’s important to note that average download speeds are improving (in some places, dramatically) and finding a phone without 5G is next to impossible.
In other words, the impact is real, just a little more subtle than we would have hoped.
The future of 5G
Looking ahead, while we may not see any real killer applications for 5G in the near term, there are glimmers of hope. Several important underlying technologies, including so-called network slicing, are beginning to be implemented by major US carriers. These network-based enhancements are expected to create new types of 5G-specific services for businesses and consumers.
Additionally, we’re starting to see a wider rollout of new frequencies for cellular networks — specifically something called C-Band or mid-band — which should start to make 5G download speeds much faster.
While it may not be as exciting as the sci-fi capabilities touted by the industry, it does provide some real-world benefits that we can all appreciate.