When should enterprises move to 5G?

Maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow, but eventually everyone will be on 5G. However, before rushing to implement it in your business be sure to know what the available benefits are and which types of users will notice a real improvement in their mobile experience.

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One of the biggest areas of hype these days centers around how 5G will change the wireless world. Carriers are ramping up their rhetoric, which not always matched with actual deployment. End users are being bombarded with 5G news from carriers, device makers and app providers. But is 5G really ready for prime time? There is no doubt 5G will have a major impact, but should enterprises be making immediate plans to deploy 5G?

The reality is that there are lots of short-term issues around 5G, especially as it relates to enterprises, who in most cases have a variety of users scattered over wide areas with many differing needs. These issues primarily revolve around coverage, devices and apps.

5G coverage – more than a trial?

Most carriers have been working on 5G and have deployed trials at various levels to prove their commitment. And some have even stated that they will be rolling out 5G services in late 2019 or early 2020. But we need to evaluate what those services will look like. Initial rollouts will have some significant shortcomings.

First, they will generally be available only in densely populated areas, like certain parts of major cities. What do users do if they travel to other locations? Second, they are generally based on millimeter wave (mmWave) technology, which by its nature requires massive numbers of microcells to achieve any persistent coverage over a wide area, and have a very difficult time penetrating into buildings or behind many “blind spots.” This creates some real issues with coverage if you are moving around, say in an automatable or truck.

Carriers will be moving to sub 6 GHz frequencies that offer much broader coverage (comparable to today’s coverage) and should alleviate much of this challenge. But it’s likely to take another one to two years to achieve this. And, finally, for most users, coverage isn’t good enough until they can get it 80 percent or more of the time and at various locations. This will take at least two to three years to achieve in any meaningful way across the breadth of the country. I also expect most carriers to try and recover upgrade to 5G costs with higher priced plans for users, especially for the next year or two, so this may be a significant factor in determining whether an upgrade is warranted.

So while 5G may indeed be deployed this year or early next year, it will take another two to three years to achieve large scale, “get it anywhere I want it” coverage. In the mean time, LTE (4G) will remain predominate, and in most cases more than adequate, way users connect to cellular services.

5G devices: Who’s making what?

Several manufacturers have announced 5G-compatible smartphones recently (e.g., Samsung, LG, Huawei), some of which are available for purchase now and some that will be available shortly. But the current crop of phones generally have a major drawback – they do indeed support 5G but at mmWave frequencies only. Indeed, it’s only recently that sub 6 GHz modem chips have become generally available (e.g., Qualcomm’s X55) and they are just starting to be deployed in smartphones.

As mentioned above, mmWave has some significant coverage issues unless you happen to be near a microcell. Further, a phone that supports only mm Wave 5G will have to be replaced once sub 6GHz coverage becomes widely available. That means first generation devices may not be acceptable beyond a year or so of life.

If you are considering buying a 5G device, it is best to only purchase one that has 5G coverage for both mmWave and sub 6GHz bands.

Finally, while most smartphones today can roam across most parts of the world, 5G is much more complex as there are varying frequencies involved due to countries not always rationalizing their licenses. That means it’s a much more difficult problem for manufacturers in providing truly worldwide devices. Modem makers are working on this, but in the short term, for international travel, LTE is the more reliable (and available) solution.  

You can also expect that 5G devices, at least for the next year, will have a price premium over more mainstream devices. While the additional cost (perhaps 5 percent  to 10 percent) may not be a major barrier, it nevertheless adds up if large numbers are purchased, and particularly if organizations have difficulty in showing a short term ROI.

5G apps

Mobile apps are a dominate force in most organizations these days. But how many of those apps can actually benefit from 5G over current connectivity options? The advantage of 5G is faster speeds, and lower latency (perhaps by a factor of 10 over LTE). Those apps with minimal data transfers (e.g., form filling) will have minimal advantage in moving to 5G, while those apps that require lots of data transfer (e.g., graphics, maps, video) will show improvement. And apps that require minimal response times (e.g., autonomous vehicles, safety services) will definitely benefit from the improved low latency capability of 5G.

Enterprises should assess their app needs and make appropriate choices of when to move to 5G. Eventually all users will be on 5G but there is no need for enterprises to rush to be early implementers if there is no available benefit, and particularly if users won’t notice any real improvement in their mobile experience.

Managing eager expectations

This may be one of the biggest challenges for enterprises, particularly those that provide smartphones to their users. Many users will be vocal about obtaining 5G devices as soon as they are available. But, as outlined above, many won’t really gain much benefit other that bragging rights. It’s imperative that enterprises make end users aware of why they may or may not be eligible for 5G device upgrades, and/or when the company plans to move users to 5G. BYOD users will upgrade as and when they see fit, but that should not deter enterprises from formulating a strategy for 5G based on company needs and not user pressures.

Bottom Line: Enterprises should look at 5G as an important technology upgrade, but should do so not based on hype but on real need. In the short term (i.e., the next year or two) there may be little benefit for most users to upgrading from 4G LTE to 5G services. Longer term, 5G will become dominant just as all network upgrades eventually take over the majority of deployments. In some cases certain types of employees may warrant early upgrades to 5G even if the entire population does not. But enterprises should look at carrier availability and cost, device availability and cost, and app requirements before jumping to a 5G upgrade.