I was struck by a report from CCS Insight that suggested 5G connections globally would top more than one billion in 2022. That represents more than one person in every seven on the entire planet: the cynic in me felt it unlikely there was even that level of 5G capacity available this year.

Taking the prediction at face value, this would seem like a huge moment for a technology that – at least when it comes to human use – is still looking for a reason to exist.


The G-evolution

The mobile industry has been notoriously garbage at explaining the value of one technology over another. Little wonder then that, for consumers, 5G has simply been positioned as better and faster than 4G, which was marketed in the same way on its launch compared to 3G.
On its launch, we were confidently told 3G was going to usher in a new era of regular people making video calls instead of voice calls. Some of the adverts from that era beautifully illustrate this point:

It never happened. 3G ushered in the era of faster access to internet services and bespoke information through mobile apps.


Enter number 4

Most networks were convinced 4G would be all about avoiding buffering and streaming video. Here is an example of typical 4G marketing:

Anyone who has ever tried to use 4G to sooth a crying child on a rural bus service, might question this advert’s authenticity and doubt the network’s ability to deliver a constant and consistent stream. In the end, 4G was used much more for uploading imagery and video clips as the social networking era came of age.


The number does not matter, the experience does

In short, every consumer launch of a new mobile network technology has promised much but delivered little in reality. I suspect this is for two reasons:

  • The mobile networks (like the rest of us) are really rubbish at predicting the future and how we will use technology
  • As soon as a new, faster network infrastructure is launched, the devices using it contrive to do more, ensuring that – while the technology may feel marginally faster for a while – the technology is only really keeping up with demand from other elements in the chain

For all the 5G promise, its most compelling use cases are likely to be to deliver a more efficient and effective cross-network allocation of resources and an incredibly powerful way to connect billions of machines.

Unfortunately, this does not offer consumers a compelling reason to upgrade. So, while CCS Insight may get their 5G prediction spot on, I seriously doubt many of the one billion 5G subscribers will notice anything different at all.