Oct 19, 2020

Is the global 5G space race running in the wrong direction?

Harry Menear
4 min
More than 600,000 5G base stations have been installed across China’s network, but is that network delivering on its promises to win a 5G Space Race?
More than 600,000 5G base stations have been installed across China’s network, but is that network delivering on its promises to win a 5G Space Race...

The US-USSR Space Race defined the technological ambitions of two global superpowers for decades. The first Space Race was, according to Internet Innovation Alliance founder Bruce Mehlman, “was an audacious plan that pitted the nation against its main geopolitical rival in a contest for technological supremacy.” 

Now, Mehlman explains, the US is once again locked in an innovation race with its most powerful geopolitical rival. Today, that rival is China, and the innovation is 5G. For decades, the USSR and the US poured nearly incomprehensible amounts of money into the race to the Moon. Now, something similar is happening, as US corporations and government organisations compete with Chinese entities to lead the world in the application of 5G technologies. 

It’s very easy to compare the current battle for 5G supremacy to a second Space Race. However, the two events shouldn’t perhaps be held up in the positive light that commentators seem to think the comparison engenders. 

Even Mehmen admits it: “The benefits of the space race sometimes seemed amorphous to average Americans back in the 1960s,” adding that the benefits of 5G are a far more concrete affair. “5G promises to have an even larger economic impact [than 4G], as the technology is projected to enable more than $12 trillion in global economic output by 2035,” he adds. 

Unfortunately, for the vast majority of people in the US and China (not to mention the rest of the world), those benefits have yet to materialise; the benefits of the 5G “Space Race” are in danger of feeling just as amorphous to the average consumer today as the advantages of a slightly more powerful rocket did to people living in 1968. 

The US’ 5G networks have faced ongoing criticism over the past few months, as detractors have suggested that 5G networks “might be life-changing in the future. Not today.” The recent fanfare around the new iPhone 12 receiving 5G capabilities have been heralded by some as the tipping point for mainstream 5G adoption, while others assert that “the biggest reason to buy a 5G phone right now is FOMO.” 

Things are much the same on the other side of the Pacific. China has made a huge amount of noise about the progress of its 5G rollout. This week, the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced that the country had built more than 600,000 5G base stations as part of the ongoing expansion of its 5G network, adding that the number of 5G devices in use throughout the country has exceeded 150mn. 

However, the Ministry’s fanfare over the speed of the rollout and size of the network was quite brutally cut short this week, when Ryan Ding, head of Huawei’s carrier business, called the network "fake, dumb and poor,” in comparison to other countries - South Korea in particular. 

A large part of this problem is the fact that Chinese telecom operators, like China Unicom, have favoured using the higher frequency mmWave 5G band. While this means that the company’s networks can transmit more data at lower latencies, high-frequency 5G signals can be stopped by something as simple as a brick wall. Actual usage of 5G has been so low that China Unicom announced in August that its Luoyang branch in Henan Province would automatically switch off its 5G base stations between 9 pm and 6 am due to low traffic. 

In order to overcome the issues of using mmWave 5G, Xiang Ligang, director-general of the Information Consumption Alliance, has said that, "For the next three years starting [in 2019], 1mn 5G base stations may need to be built every year." 

With customer experiences so poor in both the US and China, the 5G Space Race is starting to look an awful lot more like the race to the Moon. Two global superpowers are pouring money into a competition over some perceived superiority, rather than guiding that innovation towards actually supporting the improvement of their citizens’ daily lives. If 5G is genuinely to benefit anyone but governments and telecom shareholders, there needs to be radical change in the way that the global rollout is being organised. 

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May 18, 2021

Ericsson insight report: What do consumers think of 5G?

6 min
Ericsson has released a new report revealing early adopters’ experiences of 5G and what they think of the network. We take a look at its findings.

Ericsson, a Swedish telecoms company, has released a new ConsumerLab insight report which shows what early adopters of 5G think of the network. Claimed to be the biggest ever 5G consumer study, Ericsson conducted more than 30,730 online interviews with smartphone users between the ages of 15 and 69 across 26 5G commercial markets, as well as non-commercial markets. 

According to the company, the study included the opinions of 1.3bn consumers and 220mn 5G users to discover the key trends influencing “the adoption, usage, and perception of users towards 5G.” The report also suggests five steps that service providers can take to meet both current and future customer expectations.  


Key findings 


1) Consumer 5G upgrade intention rises in spite of the pandemic 


Image: Ericsson

Image: Ericsson.

The first finding that the study revealed was that there was a significant increase in the number of people considering an upgrade to 5G either from a 4G-enabled smartphone or a 5G phone with a 4G subscription. The data contained in the study showed that at least 300mn smartphone users aged between 15 and 69 could take up 5G in 2021. On the other hand, 22% more smartphone users with 5G-enabled devices said they could have adopted the 5G network had knowledge apps providing them with information about it been addressed. 


2) 5G prompts changes in user behaviour and starts to displace Wi-Fi

Image: Ericsson


Image: Ericsson

The report also uncovered details on how 5G was changing user behaviour, with more consumers preferring it to Wi-Fi. 20% of those surveyed said that they have “decreased their usage of Wi-Fi after upgrading to 5G, while 14% have stopped using Wi-Fi altogether. The data also revealed that 5G users spend two more hours per week using cloud gaming and one more hour on Augmented Reality apps compared to 4G users. 


3) Indoor 5G coverage is twice as important as speed or battery life 


Image: Ericsson


Image: Ericsson

While 40% of 5G consumers are more than satisfied with the network speeds, indoor coverage was considered more important in driving consumer satisfaction. In addition, only 29% of surveyees said they were “satisfied” with the apps and services available on 5G plans. This meant that around 70% of users were dissatisfied. According to the research, immersive video, which includes Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR), contributes to 20% of the total time 5G users spend on digital services. 


4) 5G users expect more innovation   

Image: Ericsson

Image: Ericsson 

The results have also shown that 70% of users are not satisfied with the availability of innovative services and “expect new applications to make use of the 5G network”. This clearly leaves only 30% of 5G users who are satisfied with the services.  


5) Consumers value 5G plans bundled with digital services


Image: Ericsson

Image: Ericsson

Despite 5G adopters favouring these, around two-thirds of use cases rated by consumers were found only in the research and development stage or the technology showcase and were not available for them to experience, the report shows. Furthermore, a recent ConsumerLab study conducted by Ericsson revealed US$31trn in addressable consumer revenues that will “flow over 5G networks by 2030”. It also showed that service providers could secure USD 3.7 trillion of this when driven by 5G connectivity. 

However, according to Ericsson, the greatest revenue boost will, in fact, come from the digital service-bundled 5G tariffs. The aim of this is to “convince consumers of the value of a 5G network platform”, Ericsson says. 


Five ways to improve the 5G consumer experience 

In addition to finding out adopters’ opinions of the network, the report, based on this information, also suggests five ways that the 5G consumer experience can be improved. 


1) Educate and better market the value of 5G 


Image: Ericsson


Image: Ericsson.

Currently, there is a large gap in knowledge surrounding the 5G network and in terms of making the decision to upgrade. This, the report suggests, is due to “heavy tech jargon” used in 5G marketing confuses consumers and their understanding of its value, capabilities, and what it offers. Research shows that will 4 in 10 users intend to upgrade to 5G globally, only half will do so in 2021, with the rest upgrading in 2022.  

Providing a solution to the problem of the “5G knowledge gap”, the report points out that the previously mentioned additional 22% of consumers with a 5G-ready device could have upgraded to the network last year had the value of 5G technology been better marketed, tailoring information to consumers’ needs. 


2) Ensure consistent 5G coverage 

The report showed that 60% of consumers in Switzerland were satisfied with the network’s performance, compared to 30% who were “very satisfied with the performance of the 4G network. In the US, on the other hand, the study shows 14% more users are "very satisfied" with 5G compared to 4G. It was found that indoor 5G coverage was more important than outdoor coverage, speed, and battery life due to consumers staying at home during the Coronavirus pandemic. 

Ensuring consistency of coverage, especially indoors, is a solution and focal point for the future of the 5G network. 


3) Adapt to the network requirements for new services


Image: Ericsson

Image: Ericsson

The 5G network is ever-encouraging changes in user behaviour and, with it, brings different service requirements. As mentioned previously,  Wi-Fi usage is decreasing both at home and in other locations due to 5G being the preferred choice. 

During the pandemic, while staying at home, broadband usage was at its highest according to Ericsson’s report, and some consumers were relying on 5G cellular connectivity as a backup network whenever their Wi-Fi network developed performance issues. However, to ensure 5G has the capabilities to deal with the increased demand, Ericsson believes it is important to adapt it and services providers “need to go beyond existing bundled services such as music and video streaming”, the report says. 


4) Focus on what consumers want 5G to do

Ericsson says that another way to improve the 5G consumer experience is to focus on “jobs-to-be-done” or services that consumers want 5G to provide. “Identifying and understanding the jobs consumers want 5G to do is the first step in envisioning and offering use cases that consumers want, especially ones they are likely to pay for”, the company said. 

The study highlighted five key jobs that consumers hope 5G will them to do. These are: 

  1. To be productive and efficient 
  2. To be creative 
  3. To provide new ways of connecting and socialising 
  4. The need for novelty (surprise, thrill, discovery)
  5. Rewarding “me-time”. 

Known as the “jobs-to-be-done theory”, the report says that it “provides an anchor point from which service providers can create value via new or existing use cases”. 


5) Increase innovation and accelerate the availability of use cases via ecosystem partnerships 

Image: Ericsson

Image: Ericsson

Using the jobs-to-be-done framework, Ericsson tested 27 different use case concepts aligned with the consumer needs so that they could assess which concepts consumers feel are worth paying for, while also assessing their current development phase. Below are the results. 

  1. Business ready: Digital services/use cases that are currently being bundled in 5G plans by service providers or are widely available.
  2. Technology showcases: use cases that are currently relegated to just technology demonstrations by service providers.
  3. Still in R&D: use cases that require significant research and development to solve technology complexity or see ecosystem readiness challenges.

By obtaining this data, Ericsson is able to assess the ways in which it can increase innovation and improve the availability of use cases as they embark on their mission to improve the 5G consumer experience.

The full report can be viewed here.

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