Mobile World Congress is an odd event. It’s where the GSMA attempts to set the mobile agenda for the coming year, where major infrastructure deals are done behind closed doors and where the rest of the industry shows off its latest products. This year, the big message was that 5G is coming, whatever that may be. The IoT was relegated to something that’s mainly happening in China and the startup community. What I found interesting was that audio was far more prominent than I can recall in any of the last 30 years of MWC and its predecessor shows.
I’ve just returned from the Mobile World Congress, and a fairly clear theme this year was the alleged imminent arrival of 5G, with companies promoting the current status variously as 4.9G, the Bridge to 5G or pre-5G. The only problem is that no-one seemed to be very clear about what 5G is going to be.
Up until now, it’s been pretty clear what the “G”s stand for – it’s been the main user application area over and above the basics of voice and text. For 2G they were pretty much confined to Games and Gambling. In other words, applications which relied on timely, but minimal data. 3G gave us Girls, as the porn industry realised that, with higher data rates, they could charge for sending pictures to the most private of our devices. The increased bandwidth of 4G resulted in Gossip – the net curtain twitching of Twitter and Facebook which has glued millions to their smartphones. But the potential killer app for 5G is proving remarkably elusive. Participants at the Global 5G Test Summit event kept on emphasising the importance of early testing for exploring new usage models and applications. That appeared to be because nobody had no idea of what they might be. Judging from the reticence of many network operators at the show, who are obviously struggling to see how they are going to make any money from investing in 5G infrastructure, the fifth “G” may end up bringing little other than Grief and Gloom.
At which point I’d like to highlight a recent book by William Webb, entitled “The Myth of 5G”. In it, he argues that not only does no-one know what 5G is, but there’s no need for it. After which, I’ll tell you about Qualkia.
The mobile industry loves hype. Now that 4G phones have reached the market, suppliers are keen to promote the next dollop of “jam tomorrow” by offering the world 5G – something that’s still rather nebulous, but as always in this industry, allegedly better than what we have today. Most users have still to experience 4G, but that’s par for the course. The industry loves something new, preferably with a bigger number. It begs the question of whether we need it, and even what it is? To try and answer these questions it’s instructive to look back at the history of mobile to see just what the “G”s mean.