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Uli Bornhauser


Debunking the Myths of 5G

It is supposed to eliminate dead zones, reinvent the smartphone, and revolutionize business models. What to make of the magic of 5G.

5G Mobilfunkantenne

5G: the new mobile communications standard is overloaded with expectations, hopes, and fears © Deutsche Telekom Mediencenter

How do we get cellular signals to penetrate thick walls without weakening? Or to overcome metal? These are the questions that concern my colleagues and me. The higher frequency bands of the new 5G standard intensify the challenge of reliably covering interiors with fast mobile phone connections. A new repeater, for which we are currently looking for testers, promises a remedy. When it comes to 5G, I closely follow current publications as you can probably imagine. The expectations, hopes, and fears that the new mobile communications standard is producing are astonishing. For some, it is regarded as a savior, while for others, it is known only as the devil’s work. Everything seems possible with 5G—from autonomous driving to the digital business model. Conspiracy theorists allege that the new cellular standard will weaken the immune system and have even linked 5G to the coronavirus.

Keeping the most important 5G misconceptions in check

In the Gartner Hype Cycle - which describes the phases of public attention that a new technology goes through when it is introduced - 5G has just reached the peak of exaggerated expectations. Therefore, it is high time to take a critical look at the most common allegations regarding the new mobile communications standard:

  1. 5G sets the pace in autonomous driving

    A typical latency in the LTE network is around 50 milliseconds - in other words, the time that elapses before a digital signal is transmitted from the transmitter to the destination and back. In the 5G network, this response time drops to a few milliseconds. Does that mean that 5G is automatically the turbo for autonomous driving? Hardly. I cannot imagine a regulatory authority that would accept a mobile phone connection as a prerequisite for the operation of an autonomous car. The autonomous car must also be able to drive independently. Nevertheless, there is a glimmer of truth to the claim. After all, numerous network expansion obligations are linked to the 5G frequency allocation. Staggered in time, these obligations stipulate network coverage with 50 to 100 Mbps on critical traffic routes - which of course can also be achieved with 4G / LTE technology. Network coverage is important because, for autonomous driving for example, we need high-resolution map material: In the car itself, the route calculation is initially based on rough data. The detailed information, such as how sharp the next bend is, is then downloaded via mobile network while driving. The optimal driving speed can then be calculated using this information. 5G is not absolutely necessary for this, however.
  2. 5G extends the capabilities of the smartphone

    First of all, 5G does not eliminate any dead zones - to achieve this, we have to further expand LTE. And that is exactly what Deutsche Telekom is doing. I suspect that the private customer will not even notice the transition from 4G to 5G. For the applications used today, the bandwidth and latency of 4G serve us well. The best example is video conferencing which gained importance during the Corona crisis and in which we are able to participate again and again via smartphone without issue. Another example is Netflix streaming via smartphone - you don't need 500 megabits per second to watch a video. 5G will only make a difference for private customers when new applications and devices are developed for it.

  3. 5G gives mobile gaming a boost

    My brother passes for a hardcore gamer. Is he now eagerly awaiting 5G because of the lower latencies? Not really. Of course, he also plays on his smartphone on the go, but as a real gamer, he prefers to sit in front of the PC or console in peace and quiet and will largely bypass 5G.
  4. 5G speeds up the Smart Factory

    With 5G, entrepreneurs can operate their own small mobile network on factory premises and thus replace wired networks. In principle, this also works over 4G. Thanks to the so-called campus networks, companies are already able to maintain machines remotely or make necessary changes in the production process online. In other words, whether companies will enter the Internet of Things (IoT) is more of a management decision. And for most applications it is not a question of 5G availability - especially since many IoT applications do not require high bandwidths or low latencies, rather the reliable transmission of small data packets. These requirements can often be excellently met with the machine- and sensor-network NarrowBand IoT.

    Of course, 5G brings other advantages. In part, because it allows various virtual networks to be set up based on a common infrastructure. With this network slicing, different applications or customers receive exactly the resources they need. The slices ensure the quality characteristics (availability, bandwidth, latency) even in extreme situations. In this way, the police force or fire brigade could also use the cellular infrastructure and thus save costs on a separate infrastructure such as the public authority digital radio TETRA. 
  5. Schulklasse sieht Hologramm eines Dinosauriers in der Natur

    5G: A push for Augmented-Reality-applications © Deutsche Telekom Mediencenter

    5G can be thanked for significantly more mixed reality

    I have high hopes for 5G in this field: Virtual and augmented reality can truly be used as digital aids almost everywhere—in product design as well as in engineering; in virtual factory planning as well as in marketing and sales. AR makes the work of fitters and technical service personnel considerably easier. However, the use of these technologies is still rare. What they lack is real-time data flow. After all, a latency of 10ms or 35ms makes a huge difference for the VR or AR experience. The devil is in the details: It makes all the difference whether an avatar is standing on a surface, or is suddenly hovering over it, or perhaps even sinking into the surface during movements. Perception is key. But if 5G is meant to fuel mixed reality, we need suitable end devices (glasses), available applications, and data. There is still a long way to go before they are widely available and affordable at that. The cellular standard alone will certainly not do the trick.

5G does not automate smart decisions

Don’t get me wrong: Of course, we need 5G in order to meet future requirements and to develop completely new digital applications. However, I want to avoid slipping from the peak of exaggerated expectations into the depths of disappointment valley. Everything doesn't automatically improve with 5G—we can already implement many digital technologies today with 4G. We need to develop suitable applications and devices for 5G in order to really benefit from its advantages. And in the future, companies too will have to consciously invest in future technologies such as the Internet of Things, big data, or artificial intelligence. Because one thing is clear: even the best mobile communications standard does not simply supply new digital business models.