5G’s real value may be as an enabler, especially for smart cities

Image credit: Red Tiger | shutterstock.com

When 5G comes to mind these days, we think of “is this REALLY it?” and “have we really progressed?”. If you have been in the industry for 10-20 years and have seen how un-fantastic 2G, 3G and 4G have been, you might think “what is this 5G?” and “do I even need to think about it?”. 

The feedback so far has not been all positive but mainly due to lack of clarity and awareness on the latest developments. Some people are saying that 5G is not the problem solver, Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) is not quite what it is made out to be, and if it is just about faster speed, who will pay for it? Some pessimism has been noted from mobile operators and investors, but this is also along with some optimism by analysts such as me and vendors. 

Here is what I see. I see an enabler. And, I see the spirit of enablement taking shape across the region and around the world. We are truly seeing a new beginning with new ideas moving from trials to commercialization. However, I am a firm believer that “reality” is what we as part of industry make of it. 

5G will impact most on transportation and logistics, manufacturing, healthcare, media, education and smart cities. Of all the key verticals highlighted, smart cities might be a good place to start if we are serious about making things happen with 5G. It might just be the place we find some of the more feasible ideas come out and where we find the initial volume to drive 5G at the right price points. 

Smart city goals include creating long term economic sustainability, providing a high quality of life for citizens and ensuring safety, resource security and environmental sustainability. Smart city parameters currently define smart technology as covering technologies and services that enable easy access and widespread connectivity. Surely 5G fits within this definition, so why hasn’t it? 

5G is here but only few companies have started to really plan their roadmaps with 5G in mind. It is time companies considered how 5G will impact their businesses and their services. 

Within what smart city applications can be, we can immediately see how 5G networks can be an enabler of smart city infrastructure. Open a smart city plan and the common bingo words such as artificial intelligence, augmented/virtual reality, internet of things and connected cars appear. The question we might ask at this juncture is, “where does it really fit and how can it make a difference”. 

I happened to be in Seoul when 5G was launched in April 2019 and I will tell you this. In my 20 years in this industry, I have never seen such a fight over a technology commercialization launch but what it represented meant a whole lot more. What is the 20 trillion won in South Korea and the US$20 billion dollar in the US allocation for research and development for if no one saw the potential in 5G. 

What is missing today are the applications optimized for 5G. Few people will pay US$50-70 per month to use 4G applications on 5G. The good news is that mobile operators know they need more applications and we are going to see more applications come out from South Korea. Not all applications will be replicable and relevant outside of South Korea but nevertheless, they represent positive effort towards monetization of 5G. 

After 20 years of hibernation, it seems like our mummy of the telecommunications industry has finally woken up as 5G. We are not sure of its wrath on the world, but we think it has got potential. 

In most countries, even in Malaysia, prioritization of technology infrastructure is a key aspect of smart cities. Yet for us here in Malaysia, as an example of countries around the world, 5G is still not deeply embedded into smart city development plans. It is common knowledge that 80% of mobile operator traffic originates indoors so it is not hard to see that 5G will be driven by indoor applications. 

In fact, Frost & Sullivan conducted as survey at the recent Asia Pacific Spectrum Management 2019 held in Kuala Lumpur in March 2019. We found that 93% of Malaysian respondents said that the availability of digital indoor systems (DIS) is important and 55% said it was needed now. The global numbers were not too different. 

This is positive for the industry, yet I know from hands on experience that the indoors isn’t the easiest place to transform, especially in Malaysia. The upside to this is the fact that regionally sites are no longer solely owned by mobile operators but increasingly owned by neutral hosts and infrastructure providers. Things are slowly changing and for the better. 

I started talking about 5G two years ago. What people liked about it was the potential of 5G to contribute towards growth of GDP and the potential to create the opportunities for new use cases and business models not just for mobile operators but also for the wider industry ecosystem. I also suggested then that mobile operators find initial volume within government projects to get 5G to the right prices for the rest of industry. 

To frame 5G around smart cities, we see how open data can drive smart city initiatives. What better technology to mine a large amount of data – faster – more sensibly – than with 5G. The only caveat is that the local government in the country in question needs to have already adopted open data. Based on today’s progress, this is still not universally the case globally. 

In March 2019, Malaysia took a step forward with a public-private collaboration to make use of open data to drive smart city initiatives. MAMPU is now working closely with industry technology players such as NetApp. NetApp will provide the government with the much-needed data storage and data management architecture to enable the optimization of open data in a safe environment. 

Also, with 5G, what is reinforced is the need for specific skillset capabilities and the role of integrators to bring together end to end solutions. The formation of industry partnerships is critical for the development of 5G. Here again we can draw parallels with the smart city world. 

To be clear, if we were already creating the solutions for smart cities within government, manufacturing, transportation, logistics, retail, media, healthcare and agriculture, why are we not leveraging more on 5G, especially when it has the characteristics that can drive smart city applications. 

The idea is not to scrap the fiber that is in place, even 5G depends on fiber. It might be a better approach to look at the smart city applications that are out there and to see how 5G can help to transform them. Don’t start from scratch but enhance existing plans and potentially achieve better results for every dollar invested over the smart city journey. 

In conclusion, it is not about the faster speeds and wider bandwidth that come with 5G. It is about how faster speeds and wider bandwidths can impact businesses and more importantly the consumers. 5G can play a key role as an enabler in local countries progress towards smart nations. It can even potentially power smart cities if set our minds to it. From buildings managed by smartphones to self-sustainable elders, the future is what we as part of industry make of it. 

This article was written by Quah Mei Lee, Associate Director at Frost & Sullivan.

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