Insight Article: What’s the Latest News and Business Cases for 5G?

TNC last wrote a deep dive examination of the use cases for 5G in early 2020, just before the world was turned upside down by COVID-19. With the UK emerging from lockdown, it felt like a great time to look again at where 5G is today, and how those use cases, and the underlying business cases are stacking up.

Let’s start with what’s changed in the last 12 months:

Coverage has continued to grow, but remains low relative to 4G:

  • The three major network operators addressing the UK corporate market, BT/EE, O2/Virgin Media, and Vodafone, are now offering coverage in between 120-200 towns and cities in the UK, dependent on specific operator
  • “Real world” coverage within these areas is quite low. The recent RootMetrics report by IHS Markit showed “real world” coverage in the largest of these towns and cities in the range of 20-50%, and even in central London, whilst BT/EE’s coverage led the market with 95% coverage, O2/Virgin Media was down at 33%
  • Looking forwards, coverage growth will continue to be quite slow – for example, BT/EE recently said it would take until early 2023 to reach 50% population coverage and 2028 to reach 90% population coverage

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the relatively low levels of coverage, 5G penetration also remains low. For example, BT/EE announced it had reached 1m 5G subscribers in the UK in April, 2021. Whilst BT/EE no longer publishes total subscriber numbers in the UK, TNC believes this equates to approx. 6% of BT/EE users

The picture for 5G-capable devices is interesting. Looking at the UK first, it is estimated that less than 10% of UK mobile users have 5G-capable devices today. Of course, this number is growing, particularly because an increasing number of new devices are 5G capable, and this will become the default over time. However, as has been widely reported, individuals and organisations are holding onto handsets for longer which means it is taking longer for 5G device penetration to increase. Considering all of these factors, it is estimated that 54% of all smartphones sold by the end of 2022 will be 5G-capable

As can be seen from the stats above, whilst some progress has been made with 5G coverage and market penetration, 5G coverage remains patchy, and most organisations still aren’t providing 5G devices to their employees, meaning 5G remains at a very low level of penetration into corporate fleets.

In truth, that reality aligns with TNC’s projections from 2020, which we summarised as follows:

“…there is little reason and not much interest for companies to migrate their mobile estates to 5G any time soon. It is expensive to do, with little obvious benefit.

So, why are people getting so excited about 5G? The short answer is that what makes 5G so exciting is less about changing what happens to the phone in your hand, and more about enabling mobility to transform the world away from our phones.”

TNC certainly still believes that this projection is correct. The question remains though, are organisations finding ways to use mobility, and particularly 5G mobility, to transform the world away from our phones?

Well, the short answer right now, in the UK at least, is “not so much”. There is certainly a lot of potential applications under discussion, whether it is autonomous vehicles, drones, or AR/VR, however there is little real world adoption and deployment of these technologies – mostly pilots, trials, and early stage adoption. It may be that the pandemic has focused many organisations on keeping the lights on, and blue-sky innovation has had to take a back seat, but the fact remains that there aren’t many major 5G deployments of these types of technologies right now.

In summary, TNC’s analysis at the moment highlights a “5G Paradox” – everyone agrees 5G is a major technology trend that could have huge implications for society, but no-one is quite sure exactly how this will happen, and in the meantime they aren’t rushing out to procure 5G services.

Perhaps the recent advertising by the major networks perfectly sums up this 5G Paradox. This summer we’ve had EE showing us Kevin Bacon guiding a barber to shave someone at the top of Mount Snowdon, and Vodafone showing us Ken Owens signing autographs from 8,000 miles away, but the question both adverts can leave with us watching telecoms professionals is “is that the best use case they can think of for 5G?” Both are technologically impressive, but none of the networks has yet been able to show a true killer app for 5G. Indeed, the impression is more that they also don’t seem to be exactly sure what the point of 5G is either.

By contrast, 5G activity in other markets, particularly China and the USA appears much greater than in the UK. For example, there is projected to be over 1m 5G base stations in China by the end of 2022, suggesting considerable increases in penetration and usage.

However, focusing back to the UK, what do all these statistics and analysis mean for those who lead, own and operate mobility strategy for leading organisations? TNC would highlight three main factors you should be considering:

  • Innovation will be driven across your organisation. The days when developing a mobility strategy meant deciding how many handsets and what platform are gone. It is highly likely that your next mobility strategy will mean engaging with a much broader group of stakeholders to understand the full range of potential use cases for mobility – whether that’s your colleagues in manufacturing who want to use 5G to enable IoT, your colleagues in marketing who want to deliver new revenue channels using AR/VR, or your colleagues in facilities who are wondering if your new head office needs a LAN, it’s highly likely you will have a much broader group of stakeholders dreaming up new use cases all the time
  • Use cases will be inbound from a whole ecosystem of external parties.  At the same time that your colleagues are thinking of their own use cases, they and you will be hearing about more and more innovations from external parties about how they can deliver value using 5G. This could be your airtime provider, but it equally could be other partners and service providers who are leveraging 5G to provide value-added services
  • Building business cases will become critical. It is highly likely that anyone driving mobility strategy is going to spend a lot of the next 24-36 months really diving into business case development for a whole range of mobility applications. The obvious business case will be to enable 5G into the mobile phone fleet, but all the other innovations will all have complex business cases underpinning them, and evaluating these will be critical to ensure 5G delivers benefits not just costs 

In summary, TNC’s research shows that there will be a huge range of use cases for 5G, but it is fair to note two things: firstly, some of those use cases are proving quite ephemeral at the moment; and secondly many of these use cases are not yet known but will surely come.

However, these use cases are likely to be different to the use cases that drove 3G and 4G adoption – it isn’t about what happens on your phone, but about enabling a whole range of new applications and capabilities to drive business change, productivity, and value.

As the UK’s leading vendor independent consultancy specialising in the development and execution of 5G services, TNC is ideally placed to help you make the most of this wave of innovation – enabling you to maximise your benefits, minimise your costs, and mitigate your risks. Contact us today to see how TNC can help you win the 5G battle. 


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