5G projects are still slow to take off. Technology isn't the only problem

Few companies are investing in 5G projects yet, thanks to a lack of use cases and limited rollouts.

5G: What it means for IoT

Business enthusiasm for 5G remains limited right now, with few firms going much further than technology trials or talking to suppliers.

Research by consultant EY reveals that 15% of the UK businesses in its survey sample are currently investing in 5G -- a number that's expected to rise to 70% in three years. 

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Of the 15% who are investing in 5G right now, most are at the early stages: over half are in 'discovery and planning mode', while 34% are discussing 5G investment with suppliers. Another 27% said they are engaging in a 5G trial or test bed, and 34% are planning 5G adoption. Just 2% have 5G operational within their organisation.

Under half (44%) of respondents thought they could implement 5G-based Internet of Things (IoT) projects.

SEE: IT pro's guide to the evolution and impact of 5G technology (free PDF)

EY's UK sample is of 200 enterprises, drawn from technology, manufacturing, consumer products, financial services, energy, automotive, government and healthcare sectors.

For now, at least, a lack of understanding of benefits and use cases seems to be a major blocker to 5G projects, cited by three-quarters of the businesses surveyed. A similar proportion considered 5G as only an incremental progression on 4G or wi-fi.

Praveen Shankar, EY's head of technology, media and telecommunications for the UK & Ireland, said: "UK businesses are keen to invest in 5G, but this is not matched by most organisations' capabilities. Success will require adapting existing strategies like IoT to take full advantage of 5G and also understanding the links with adjacent emerging technologies such as AI."

These figures for 5G adoption in the UK are lower than in some international research published by Accenture, which found that 36% of companies are already using 5G, but which also cited business concerns about the security implications of 5G.

Early days

However, in reality it's still very early days for 5G. While mobile operators in the UK have been gradually extending their 5G coverage since they launched their networks in the middle of last year, 5G is mostly still limited to big towns and cities (it's worth remembering that the coverage of 4G is still far from universal). 5G standards are still evolving around areas such at IoT, and handsets are still a novelty. Perhaps just as importantly, there's still no 5G iPhone.

EY said the current state of UK enterprise 5G adoption is in line with the global sample. "5G device availability, geographic coverage and enterprise purchasing cycles may all inform current penetration rate," the consulting firm told ZDNet.

Separate research from consultant McKinsey said that improved connectivity could create big benefits for business -- particularly in areas such as transport, healthcare, manufacturing and retail.

SEE: Research: How 5G will transform business (TechRepublic Premium)

But McKinsey noted that although most of the required technologies are already available and the opportunities have existed for some time, progress has yet to take off in many areas, suggesting that factors beyond the technology are holding businesses back.

"Questions about who makes the required investments, who benefits, and how to coordinate multiple players still must be solved," said McKinsey.

"In healthcare, connectivity-enabled innovations can make it possible to monitor patients remotely, use AI-powered tools for more accurate diagnoses, and automate many tasks so that caregivers can spend more time with patients. Manufacturers and other industrial companies can run highly precise, high-output, and largely automated operations using low-latency commercial and private 5G networks," the consulting firm said.

However, it warned that the payback from new technologies like 5G doesn't always go to the organisations doing all the work, which is why projects don't get off the ground. "The entity doing most of the heavy lifting of investment and implementation may not be the one who stands to benefit financially. Furthermore, many use cases introduce data complexities, in terms of privacy, security, and interoperability," said McKinsey. "These issues existed in the previous technology cycle, and they are carrying forward with greater urgency."