5G: Is it time to jump in?

The much-anticipated fifth-generation mobile networking technology holds enormous potential for enterprise users. Here's how to know when to commit
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5g when to move

With the amount of hype around  5G for the past year or two, it’s not always clear what’s real and what’s wishful thinking about this new high-speed wireless technology. As a result, a groundswell of enterprise users is starting to request 5G connectivity, to tap the benefits of high-speed data transfer, device connectivity, and even emerging technologies like AI.

We are already starting to see some deployments of 5G. T-Mobile recently announced that it has essentially deployed 5G across most of its network points of presence, or POPS (a fancy term for cell sites), and Verizon and AT&T have launched multi-city availability as well. But at this point, getting a 5G signal is still hit or miss for most users.

[ How will 5G connectivity impact emerging technologies and the organizations that use them? Read 5G: What IT leaders need to know. ]

And it’s not always clear how 5G is being deployed. Lower frequency (Sub-6, in telco parlance) has much better signal penetration into buildings and covers more distance, while millimeter wave (mmWave) technology, which is being used in many locations, has much shorter distance and limited penetration into buildings, but very fast speeds. Each network operator has a mix of these bands for deployment, and it’s important to understand which is available where.

Is 5G real? In my opinion, it's only real when it's available at 80 perent (or more) of the locations where I want to use it.

So is 5G real? In my opinion, it’s only real when it’s available at 80 percent (or more) of the locations where I want to use it. Otherwise, it’s just an occasional offering. Unfortunately, for most people that 80 percent goal is at least a year away, and probably longer. And it’s unlikely that 5G will be deployed evenly: High-population areas will get it first and secondary areas later. So users may not see the benefits of 5G much of the time they’re connected.

5G: Consider your ROI

Regardless, some users will want to move to 5G right away. That means replacing existing smartphones with 5G-enabled devices. Is it worth the cost of upgrading at this point?

Currently, only a few high-end phones include 5G functionality, and not all cover both sub-6 and mmWave signal bands. In 2020, we’ll see many 5G-enabled devices priced in the mid-range come to market, and by 2021 lower-end 5G devices will also be available. So spending $1000+ now for a 5G-enabled smartphone may not be the best choice if you can’t quantify the benefits.

Deciding when to move to 5G involves considerations beyond just cost. Certainly, 5G is faster and has much lower latency than current 4G cellular signals. But which of your current work apps could benefit from 5G improvements right now?

In many cases there are none, or very few. Saving a couple of seconds using an app that sends and/or receives relatively little data (such as a forms-based app or a scheduling app) may not justify the cost of an early move to 5G. On the other hand, if your apps require large data transfers (such as video uploads or insurance apps), then 5G will likely offer major benefits.

Which of your current work apps could benefit from 5G improvements right now?

App performance is just one factor to consider in deciding when to go 5G. I’ve already mentioned limited network availability, the current relative lack of devices, and the small number of apps that would benefit. There is also the issue of internal resources necessary to maximize the benefits of 5G. IT will need to manage new devices and enable them for users who migrate to 5G. This may not require a major effort, depending on your situation. But to truly maximize the power of 5G, some work will need to be done internally, especially around apps.

5 questions to ask about your move to 5G

So, should you move to 5G now? To help you decide, consider the following questions:

  • Which workers need advanced 5G equipment to perform their jobs better?
  • Will the upgrade process cause extra work for IT and/or enterprise resources? If so, what is the return?
  • What new potential business models can 5G enable? What devices will they require (e.g., the always-connected PC)?
  • Is the company willing to cover the cost of new devices? (It’s a different calculation if devices are deployed as BYOD.)
  • Are 5G signals available where your employees are located and/or where they will need connectivity?

I’m not suggesting that 5G is not an important upgrade to cellular connectivity. 5G is coming, and it will become the standard, just as 4G replaced 3G, etc. But IT leaders who are responsible for providing smartphones and other connected devices to users should carefully consider the issues discussed above before making the plunge.

[ IT leaders predict what’s next in 5G, AI, and more: 17 tech predictions for 2020 – and beyond. ]

Jack E. Gold is Founder and Principal Analyst at J.Gold Associates, LLC. Mr. Gold has been a technology analyst for more than 25 years, and has more than 45 years of experience in the computer and electronics industries.