Looking back in order to look forward; what does this new decade hold for the wireless industry?

Published by Colt Technology Services on January 9, 2020

The end of one year and start of another often sees people look back and reflect upon the last 12 months as well as start to think about the year ahead.

This year though, I find myself not only reflecting on last year but the decade that has now come to an end. The last decade saw the way we communicate dramatically change and mobile technology and handsets played a huge role in that. The wide-spread roll out of 5G that is said to come in this new decade will drive further reinvention – so what are the parallels between the last decade and where we are today?

As the ‘Naughties’ drew to a close, we were just a couple of years into the smartphone revolution, with the real growth still yet to come. The latest handset on the market was the iPhone 3G S, which was launched in the Summer of 2009 and ran on the 3G network with a top speed of 7.2Mbps download and only 384Kbps upload.

The Android operating system was just over a year old and was gaining traction in the handset market. This too would be the last year that Nokia and Blackberry handsets would feature in the top five in terms of sales. The average usage of data on the smartphones of the day was around 25MB a month, approximately 1000x less than today.

Even though 3G had been released for five or more years in some markets, it was actually 2G that was the dominant radio access technology across the world in 2009; it would also be another year before the first 4G commercial networks that would work with smartphones came along. The world’s first 4G network was less than five months old as the first decade of the new millennium came to an end.

In 2019 – as with 4G in 2009 – 5G was just starting. The very first use case for 4G LTE, the USB dongle was not the main use case for that generation, it will be the same with 5G and the use cases that have started this current generation.

The TV ads of the day showed users doing things on their smartphones that didn’t become commonplace until a few years down the road. As this last decade has shown, it has taken subsequent steps to start to maximise the potential of the current generation of mobile technology. The success of 4G is not judged upon how the industry and market looked in 2009.

It will be remarkably similar with 5G, the full realisation of the technology will occur as the decade marches forward, if anything, the pace of that potential will be increased. It took three years for the first commercial 4G networks with smartphones to materialise following the completion of the standards, with some markets not launching for nearly five years. With 5G, the first commercial launches arrived last year within 12 months of standardisation, and significant worldwide market presence is predicted within three years. According to the latest Ericsson Mobility Report, 5G will become the dominant carrier of wireless data within five years. It took 4G eight years to reach that point and something that 3G never really achieved.

There is insight to gain from looking back to the past and comparing, but it shouldn’t be the only barometer of what the future can hold. I have been in the industry long enough to recognise both the similarities and the differences from the past. One of the significant differences from previous generations of cellular technology is the multitude of applications that 5G could become relevant in.

Bold predictions are being made about where and how 5G will be used, perhaps one of the lessons of the past that the industry as a whole struggles to master is managing expectations. Just as the predictions of what cellular could do for users in 2009 were somewhat exaggerated for the day and the hype led to false expectations, and in some cases disappointment, the same is happening today with 5G and the many potential uses – consider automated vehicles and remote surgery as two of the more fanciful examples for 5G. The past ten years did teach us, however, that the industry eventually got there on its promises, with a couple of bumps and bruises along the way. I believe the same will happen with 5G, we will get there, but it may take some time, and there will definitely be learnings. As an industry, we can learn from the past but also not be constrained by it, as a friend once said to me, ‘the experience of the past is not necessarily sufficient for the challenges of the future’.

When it comes to making the most out of 5G, and keeping the promises already being made in regards to this technology, fibre is going to be increasingly important. We know that the amount of data generated by 5G enabled devices is going to be unprecedented, so despite the world getting more wireless, wires are now critical. 5G cannot be realised without dense fibre connectivity, so over the next ten years, Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) will need to have access to high bandwidth, agile fibre assets or partner with those that operate such networks.

Colt is a provider of one of these networks and one of the reasons I joined the business was to help meet the challenges of the future and enable the 5G era. Colt has all the makings to be a key enabler of the 5G world, however the organisation still needs to be a part of the wider mobile ecosystem, because not one single player will be able to deliver 5G. The next generation mobile network will require more collaboration than ever before. However, if my first year at Colt is anything to go by, it is going to be a fun, exciting and challenging decade going forward. I personally cannot wait to see what 2020 and beyond brings.


Mark Gilmour, Head of Mobile Connectivity Solutions, Colt Technology Services

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