I had the loveliest chat with SoftBank’s Pepper today and I think he may have been the only robot or person in Barcelona not to say the magic phrase ‘5G’. Had Team H+K allowed ourselves to behave like our inner college student then the 5G drinking game would have seen us obliterated by 9.30am. 5G is all anyone wants to talk about.

Here’s the problem – we’ve a way to go yet till we see widespread use of 5G. Sure lots of operators tell us that they’re all good to go for 5G, many of whom have already undertaken extensive fibre roll-outs to connect multiple base stations. And, yes, we’ve certainly seen highly successful 5G speed and services tests in a wide variety of environments, not least of which was the pilot at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics. Pyeongchang, a city that is usually home to just shy of 45,000 people was a vital testing ground for Intel and KT who used the town at the tech industry’s largest 5G showcase yet.

Despite that we’re still not quite ready for 5G. Firstly, operators are still looking to amortise their 4G investments. 5G is not going to be cheap to roll out. According to a report by Bloomberg it will cost about $200 billion a year in research and capital from mobile phone companies, chipmakers and software developers to get us to a point where 5G is thoroughly viable. More concerning, those markets most likely to have funds to invest are precisely the markets where saturation may lead to a price war.

Secondly, we still don’t really know how spectrum will be allocated let alone commercialised between countries and operators. Back in January the Trump administration suggested nationalising the development of 5G based on security concerns around foreign companies having access to or control of the network. While this was quickly shot down by the likes of the CTIA, it raises a policy question over who we should trust to own a network that will potentially manage our cities, our safety in cars and our personal privacy.

Another concern is that we really don’t fully understand how we are going to live alongside 5G. The potential for 5G is truly transformative – let’s take that other great MWC buzzword IoT. 4G can support around 55,000 IoT sensors per square kilometre. Sounds quite a lot to this layman. 5G could radically change that dynamic, bringing an ability to support up to 1 million IoT sensors per square kilometre. However, to do that its estimated we’ll need 1.5 million antennae to connect and communicate the data. That may not make commercial or practical sense. We get the potential, but arguably we have some more work to do to understand exactly what delivering that reality  means.

On the plus side we’re making progress on defining technical requirements and standards, something that is essential to ensure open communication and collaboration. According to the latest Ericsson 5G Readiness Study, that has led to increased positivity among operators. 28% expect to deploy 5G in 2018 in some respect. Over half claim they have a clear strategy in place for use cases, and 36% believe they have a clear business case. 

In the mean time we’ll continue to lean on good old-fashioned WiFi. According to the Cisco VNI, WiFi hotspots are 6x to 541 million by 2021. I can only hope that a few more of them are deployed in hotels around Barcelona.