5G and the Difference Between Engineering and Design

As the annual phone fest that is Mobile World Congress would have just wrapped up in Barcelona this week, we would by now be digesting news of new 5G phones and infrastructure upgrades, and trying not to break the latest folding phone screens that Samsung and others believe we need. Due to the unfortunate outbreak of Covid-19 the event was cancelled and hence mainstream news coverage of the latest initiatives has been minimal, and this raises some interesting questions regarding the value of this event and indeed conferences in general.

So what exactly might we have heard this week? Most likely that 5G was here today, with blistering gigabit speeds and latency in the sub-millisecond range (in theory), with impressive test results that proved that mmWave works (outdoors in dry weather at least). This news would have been nothing new; we have been hearing these announcements at MWC for the last 3 years. The problem is that these news articles still fail the ‘so what?’ test; why does this matter?

In order to answer this question, it helps to understand the difference between solving an engineering problem, and solving a design problem. As an example, if we look back to the evolution of the world wide web, it took roughly a decade from the early 90s to the mid-2000s to establish ubiquitous, reliable software, protocols, hardware and infrastructure. This included the evolution of HTTP, HTML, Javascript and fixed broadband and then mobile networks to the point where the engineering challenges had been solved. In those heady early days we were ecstatic when our modems beeped into life and pages slowly loaded. By the mid-2000s though, the engineering challenges had been addressed, and innovation turned to service design – how to create new digital experiences that leveraged these new capabilities, for example creating social networking and new forms of commerce.

As these new web services gained adoption, mobile networks evolved in parallel from 2G, GPRS, 3G, HSDPA and then LTE and 4G. With each engineering innovation, mobile devices were able to evolve from the early days of WAP and to accommodate a full web experience, with HD video and audio, with data rates and latency roughly in the 10-50 Mb/s and 15-40ms range respectively. After an app store ecosystem had been established, companies that excelled in design could now create new experiences on platforms that had predictable capabilities and performance – the industry was able to transition from its engineering era to its design era.

When it comes to 5G and the innovation opportunities for the mobile phone form factor, there is no obvious user need that would be met by by reducing latency and/or increasing bandwidth. Sure we could download movies faster, or enjoy Ultra HD / 4K video at higher framerates, but on a hand-held mobile device the benefits would be very hard to appreciate.

So what can we use 5G for, and what is 5G anyway? Unlike 4G, 5G employs a mix of radio technologies to achieve the stated performance, and to do that nationwide would not be economically viable for any one MNO. Instead, we may see interesting new business models in which venues and industrial sites can build out their own local networks where high data rates and low latency are needed, mixing cellular and Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) capabilities, and using SDN and NFV (Software-Defined Networking and Network Function Virtualisation). But these are still engineering problems to be solved, and I believe that 5G is not quite yet in its era of design innovation. This is why I believe we are yet to see the kind of service innovation that actually merits mainstream media attention.

That said, there are some promising emerging use cases, for example:

  • Internet of Things (IoT) industrial device control: using 5G mesh network to connect and control manufacturing machinery. Existing Wi-Fi and 4G technology does not have the low latency or reliability needed.
  • Real-time multimedia collaboration: for live remote collaboration, a round-trip latency of no more than 5-10ms is required before performers can start to notice the delays. Last year’s Music for All 5G Music Lesson with Jamie Callum was a great showcase of a live concert where the band were in 3 separate cities (London, Bristol, Manchester) yet played together as one.
  • Augmented Reality (AR) for live meetings: high bandwidth and very low latency streaming to AR glasses could enable tele-presence video conferencing with dispersed team members.

And what about the future of conferences, or indeed global travel? With Covid-19 and climate change being important drivers for reducing our physical travel, as well as the benefits and cost savings of increased working from home, perhaps this could be the stimulus needed to kick 5G into its service design era. What could 5G do for you?

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