5G still offers all this growth potential, despite early bumps

The wireless technology may not have lived up to early expectations, but 5G remains the mobile platform championed to deliver all sorts of new business efficiencies.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor
Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

5G may have had a bumpy early start, but the mobile communications platform still has the potential to deliver significant benefits for organizations, particularly for those in sectors such as manufacturing and maritime. 

As it is, the mobile industry is a major economic growth engine for regions such as Asia-Pacific, where South Korea, China, and Japan have led the world in 5G network deployments, according to GSMA. The industry group said Asia-Pacific was on track to become the largest 5G market globally. 

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Mobile technologies and services contributed $810 billion in economic value to the regional economy last year, with this figure projected to hit almost $1 trillion by end-2030. 5G rollouts will further amplify the impact of mobile networks on businesses and consumers, GSMA said. 

The Association's February forecasts indicate that global 5G connections would double over the next two years, driven by new network deployments in more than 30 countries this year alone. At least 15 of these will be 5G standalone networks. India, in particular, will see significant growth momentum, with four networks to be rolled out by the end of 2025, supporting 145 million additional users.

And while 5G accounted for just 4% of mobile connections in Asia-Pacific last year, this will expand 10-fold by 2030 to make up 41% of the region's mobile connections, GMSA predicts. With its anticipated impact on productivity and revenue, 5G is expected to add more than $133 billion to the Asia-Pacific economy in 2030.

By the end of 2030, the region will have some 1.4 billion 5G connections, with growth accelerated by a fall in 5G device prices, network expansion in several markets, and concerted efforts by governments to integrate mobile technologies.

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"As 5G matures and becomes more versatile, it is transforming many different processes across the economy," GSMA noted in a September report. "With the rollout of private 5G networks and standalone 5G, introducing cloud-native core networks, operators are able to provide organizations with the ultra-reliable connectivity required to automate critical operations."

It added that edge computing also is used to reduce latency and support real-time usage of image recognition and other applications powered by artificial intelligence (AI).  

While still in its infancy, 5G's early deployments highlight the platform's potential to deliver flexible and fast connectivity across industry use cases, bringing tangible benefits to businesses and consumers, GSMA said. 

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The assurance comes after SK Telecom in August released a whitepaper on 6G that included lessons it learned from its 5G deployment. South Korea's largest mobile operator, SK Telecom, was among the world's first -- alongside its peers in the local market -- to launch commercial 5G networks in 2019. Its standalone network went live in 2021. 

In its whitepaper, the telco noted that most of the often-cited use cases that 5G was touted to deliver "did not live up to expectations." These use cases included autonomous driving, urban air mobility (UAM), augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR), hologram, and digital twin. 

The report noted that remote surgery, ultra-high definition video streaming, and autonomous driving were among services touted alongside 5G, but these still had not seen successful adoption. SK Telecom cited a combination of issues as key barriers to adoption, including low -- or lack of -- market demand, device form factor constraints, immaturity of devices, and regulatory and policy challenges. 

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Due to its frequency characteristics, 5G also required more base stations -- compared to LTE -- to achieve nationwide network coverage. This meant more efforts were needed in terms of cost and time, which were not in sync with customer expectations of the same level of coverage as LTE.

"We should have taken a more objective perspective. For example, whether 5G technology alone could change the future, or whether the overall environment constituting the service was prepared together. If so, the gap between the public's expectations for 5G and the reality would not have been large," SK Telecom said. 

Not a failure, despite early disappointments

It might not have lived up to early expectations, but 5G should not be deemed a failure, GSMA's Asia-Pacific head Julian Gorman, told ZDNET. 

Noting that SK Telecom's report presented a "good calibration" for the industry, Gorman said technology pioneers are more likely to experience disappointments than those that adopt it later when the market has had time to mature. Early mobile devices, for instance, may have poorer user experience and features, compared to devices released at a later stage. 

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Being first in the market also involves higher costs and early adopters have to find and navigate around potholes, he added. 

With networks now matured and devices better, he said 5G users likely will realize their 4G experience pales in comparison. 

Nokia's Singapore head Ngiam Ming Kin also noted a general openness and knowledge about 5G, particularly among enterprises, which were aware of the significant difference the network could bring. 

Organizations see 5G as a key part of their digital transformation journey and a catalyst for new business models, Ngiam said in an interview. Connectivity also is an important piece of Singapore's Digital Connectivity Blueprint, which places the country in a good position to move up the 5G value chain. 

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With the underlying architecture and network in place, however, there is a need now for the rest of the ecosystem to keep pace. Specifically, devices such as smart home appliances are behind and still running on old Wi-Fi technology or 4G, he said, adding that this is hampering wider 5G adoption. 

He urged the need for IoT (Internet of Things) devices that are designed for 4G technologies to catch up and for manufacturers to be ready 5G. 

Industry standards also need to be updated, including business and operational processes, so applications can run seamlessly within a 5G environment. If too much effort is required to do so, adoption can be hampered, he said. 

Adoption, though, has been promising in industries where there have been clear 5G use cases. In Singapore's maritime, for instance, the deployment of 5G has yielded operational efficiencies, Gorman said. 

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In its report, GSMA noted that Singapore's Keppel Offshore & Marine had deployed an AR/VR smart eyewear solution, running on M1's 5G standalone network, to carry out inspections of its shipyard. The rollout is expected to cut manual hours required for inspection by 50% from 16,000 to 8,000 each year. 

Gorman pointed to manufacturing as another sector that could reap significant benefits from 5G. Thai auto parts manufacturer Somboon Advance Technology, for example, has been tapping 5G to power robots to monitor camshaft production lines, improving productivity by 1.25 times.

The mobile network also supports the manufacturer's unmanned automated guided vehicles (AGVs), used to transport goods and materials across the factory floor. Materials delivered to the warehouse by AGVs now are stored automatically by a 5G-enabled system. These 5G-enabled applications have boosted the Somboon factory's earnings by 60% and cut operational costs by 30%.

SK Telecom also pointed to some bright spots in its deployment, with consumers' mobile data usage seeing exponential growth and LTE frequency hitting saturation point. 

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The South Korean telco said it had been able to deliver services by securing new 5G frequencies and building up nationwide networks. Costs per GB on the network are more than 70% cheaper compared to LTE, pushing 5G subscribers to use at least 50% more data than LTE consumers.

SK Telecom added that it was applying what it learned from its 5G deployment to resolve technical and economic issues and offer "stable quality of services" to its customers. 

"Businesses across Asia-Pacific are harnessing the increasingly sophisticated capabilities of 5G networks across a very wide range of use cases," GSMA said. "In combination with other technologies, such as edge compute and AI, public and private 5G networks are now delivering very tangible benefits to businesses, employees, and consumers."

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