In the last couple of weeks, I’ve come across several clear examples of general confusion about connectivity and wireless technologies – including among smart and otherwise tech-savvy people.
- A recent survey came up with the remarkable result that over a million people in the UK think they already have “satellite broadband”. The real number is likely under 100k. But many still associate the telecom brand Sky with its early involvement with satellite TV. (Expect Dish to face the same issue in the US).
- On a client workshop discussing future devices, a user-interface expert referred to “Wi-Fi towers”, rather than mobile/cellular towers. I’ve also heard someone talk about “satellite Wi-Fi” when referring to things like LEO constellations.
- A friend posted a photo of mobile antennas in London, in black enclosures to match the structure they were mounted on. One comment was that they were “definitely 5G” with no explanation why they distinguished them from 4G (or indeed, multi-radio RAN units as I suspect they were). Another confidently asserted they were definitely “boosters”, whatever that means.
- A fascinating Nokia-produced podcast, with a visionary from Disney, covered a huge amount about AR/VR, branding and new experiences. The only problem was the assertion that this would all depend on 5G – even indoors on the sofa, where we can expect essentially all headsets and most smartphones to be connected to Wi-Fi.
- Another podcast referenced Mavenir’s acquisition of cPaaS provider Telestax, with the farcical suggestion that it tied in with B2B uses of 5G. Instead, it’s more about platforms for enterprise messaging and calling. Getting an automated dentist-appointment reminder or automating a call-centre process doesn’t depend on 5G (or any other G, or even wireless).
- I’ve lost count of the people who think 5G enables 1 millisecond latencies everywhere.
At one level, we can shrug and say this is just normal. People often fail to grasp distinctions between categories of similar things that are obvious (and important) to experts involved in their production or classification.
How many people confuse bulldozers and excavators, a flan vs. a quiche, or even a spider and insect? Yet, we don’t pay much attention to the exasperated sighs and teeth-grinding of civil engineers, chefs or arachnologists. We in the industry don’t help much either – how many Wi-Fi SSID access names are called “5G” instead of “5GHz”?
Yet, for connectivity, these distinctions do matter in many real ways. They can lead to poor decision-making, flawed regulation, misled investors and wasted effort. There is real, physical harm in some cases, too – think about all the crazy conspiracy theories about 5G (especially “60GHz mmWave 5G” – which doesn’t even exist yet), or previously Wi-Fi.
Think about the huge hyping by politicians about 5G – despite many of the use-cases either working perfectly well on older 4G, or in reality more likely to use fibre or Wi-Fi connections. That can feed through to poor policy on spectrum, competition – and as seen in many places recently, vendor diversification rules which ignore the vibrant ecosystem of indoor and private cellular suppliers.
Think too about the ludicrous assertions that LEO satellite constellations like SpaceX’s Starlink could replace normal home broadband or terrestrial mobile, despite the real practicalities meaning endpoint numbers will be 100x fewer, even with optimistic projections.
This all puts a new angle on a common refrain in telecoms “users don’t care what network they’re connected to”. In reality, this could be more accurately rephrased as “users don’t understand what network they’re connected to…. although they really should”.
This also applies to the myth of “seamless” interconnection between different technologies, such as Wi-Fi and 5G networks. The border (i.e. seam) is hugely important. Not just users but also application and device developers need to understand this – and, if possible, control it. Frictionless can be OK. It can change the speed, cost, ownership, security, privacy, predictability of the connection. Seamless is useless, or worse.
What should be our practical steps to deal with this? Realistically, we’re not going to get the population to take “Wireless 101” courses, even if we could agree amongst ourselves what to tell them. We’re certainly not going to give people a grasp of radio propagation through walls, nor ITU IMT-Advanced definitions and how that relates to “5G”.
But on a more mundane level, there are some concrete recommendations we can follow:
- Use generic terms such as “advanced connectivity” without specifying 5G, Wi-Fi or whatever, wherever possible. At least that’s relatively accurate.
- Ignore any surveys of the general public about wireless technology. Assume that 90% of people won’t understand the questions, and the other 10% will lie. Actually, ignore most surveys of the industry as well – most have appallingly biased samples, usually over-represented by people trying to sell things.
- Don’t repost, retweet or otherwise circulate hyped-up articles or comments. If someone claims that $X Trillion will be generated by 5G, ask if they’ve looked into what the baseline would be for 4G, and what the assumptions and sensitivities are.
- I’ll be bad at this myself, but we should try to gently point out to people they’re wrong, rather than either shrug-and-ignore, or ridicule-and-point. If a politician or marketer or broadcaster talks about 5G or Wi-Fi or satellite with clear factual errors, point it out online, or in person.
- Ask open-ended questions such as “why do you think satellite broadband can really do that?” or “have you considered how that would work indoors?” and see if people have actually given it any real thought.
- Don’t let your boss or your clients get away with these misconceptions, even if you think correcting them could cause a negative reaction. Don’t be a yes-person. (If you need to, let me know & I can debunk their claims for you. I’ll probably enjoy it too much though….)
- Do NOT hire clueless “content marketing” people to write gibberish about “Why Tech X will Change the World”
- Watch out for logical fallacies like “appeal to authority”. There’s no shortage of very senior and well-known people spouting the type of nonsense I describe here.
- Run internal training sessions on “myth vs. reality” about wireless and telecoms. Make them fun.
I don’t know whether this campaign to improve genuine understanding (and a bit of skepticism of hyperbole) will pay off. But I think it’s important to try. Feel free to add other examples or suggestions in the comments! Also, please subscribe to my LinkedIn newsletter and follow @disruptivedean on Twitter.