The next wave of wireless cellular tech, called 5G, is misunderstood all around. Although 5G will be at least 20 times faster than 4G wireless (downloads of 20 gigabytes per second), it’s not all about speed. Wireless companies are excited about additional benefits: 1,000 times lower power use in some cases, virtually no delay (as low as a millisecond, vs. 100ms for 4G), and more reliable connections for mission-critical connections like to drones or robot cars. But they might also misunderstand 5G, according to a new analysis by Morgan Stanley, “Learning to Ride a 5G Cycle.” Building 5G systems will cost a fortune (at least $225 billion worldwide), and demand for all those new technologies will take a while to materialize.
5G uses a lot of short-range wireless frequencies, requiring many more small cell transmitters (more like Wi-Fi routers than cell towers). “A medium-sized operator may have 8-10,000 base stations within their network,” says the report. “But trying to deliver ultra dense networks, that number may expand to upwards of 100,000 sites.” That costs more not only for equipment and labor, but for permitting fees and fighting citizen opposition. Wireless execs and lobbyists love quoting the statistic that installing these microcells takes an hour of labor and a year of bureaucracy.
Growth of demand will be even slower. Wireless carriers are already disappointed with the return on their new 4G investments, which boosted speeds to 1Gbps. 5G’s speed boost may be best for people in their houses, not on their phones: with wireless broadband able to reach remote areas that cable companies can’t be bothered stringing fiber to. But that’s a small market. And the futuristic uses of 5G—ubiquitous drones, remote-controlled surgical robots, coordinated autonomous car fleets, and omnipresent connected gadgets like environmental sensors—will take a while. “Use cases that require significant network investment…are not likely to be realistic until after 2025,” says the report.