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In Search of the Killer 5G App

AT&T and Comcast recently joined forces and joined the 5G Open Innovation Lab. This is a venture that has been funding start-ups and others working in 5G research. Along with looking to improve 5G edge technology, a primary goal of the OAI Lab is to search for killer apps for 5G. The two big companies join the other founding members of the effort, which includes Dell, Intel, Microsoft, Deloitte, and Nokia. The group hopes that adding the large carriers will help support the 118 start-ups the organization has already funded. The 5G Open Innovation Lab has raised over $1 billion in start-up venture funding and another $602 million in second or later-round funding.

It’s clear that the public doesn’t understand 5G. A survey earlier this year from Deloitte showed that 62% of Americans now have a 5G-enabled phone. Most people who don’t have 5G want it from their next upgrade. Almost 75% of survey respondents couldn’t name any specific benefits of 5G other than faster cellular speeds. 30% of survey respondents are disappointed that having 5G doesn’t seem to add any perceived applications or services.

Both companies hope to find 5G innovations by working with the companies that have been nurtured by OAI Lab. AT&T and Comcast both operate an internal product development labs but want to share in the work being done on many fronts by the Innovation labs partners.

5G has seen rapid acceptance worldwide, and the consulting firm Front & Sullivan estimates there will be over 3 billion users of 5G by 2026.

It seems like the only money-making 5G application is the recent use of the 5G network to provide home broadband. That’s something that’s possible due to the faster speeds on cellular networks. I’ve been following 5G since the technology was first announced, and using it for home broadband was never one of the original planned uses of 5G by the cellular companies.

There are more subtle benefits of 5G. The technology launched directly into the path of the pandemic at a time when people suddenly stayed at home and were less interested in mobile applications. But one of the trends that grew out of the pandemic was for people to engage with friends, family, and coworkers using video conferencing. Now that the world is mobile again, the 5G networks are supporting easy video calling that would have been challenging in the 4G LTE environment.

Making money from 5G is an interesting challenge for cellular carriers. I’ve been asking people how they feel about 5G for years. People are always amazed at the speeds they now get on their cell phones, but they are puzzled at the same time. Most people don’t do data-intensive tasks on a cell phone that demand faster speeds. I’ve lately been hearing from folks who are annoyed with their landline ISP when they see faster speeds on their cell phone. Interestingly, I’ve also been hearing from folks who have forced their phones back to 4G LTE, which seems to have steadier speeds, particularly at busy times of the day. That’s a sign that 5G networks, at least in some urban settings, might be getting over-busy.

That’s not surprising after hearing a recent AT&T announcement that it has experienced over a 30% growth in cellular usage per customer in each of the last three years. That’s a huge amount of strain to put onto any broadband network.

I always find the talk of a killer app to be interesting since that was never the real goal of 5G. Carriers implemented 5G because 4G networks were headed toward a collapse. The carriers needed to spread cell traffic over a new spectrum to keep networks functioning. The big carriers are finally starting to implement some aspects of the 5G specification that are aimed at further improving the network. For example, network slicing will right-size the bandwidth used by every customer transaction—a change that will allow many more people to use a cell tower at the same time.

But who knows—maybe the start-up companies and the carriers will find the 5G killer app. They’ve been looking for over five years, but maybe it’s out there hiding in plain sight.

By Doug Dawson, President at CCG Consulting

Dawson has worked in the telecom industry since 1978 and has both a consulting and operational background. He and CCG specialize in helping clients launch new broadband markets, develop new products, and finance new ventures.

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