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What's Preventing 5G from Becoming Mainstream?

Lineup Systems | Industry Analysis | 12th December 2019
What's Preventing 5G from Becoming Mainstream?

5G speed for mobile service is now a reality. In theory, consumers now have access to cellular speeds that are 1,000X faster than 4G. This allows them to stream content instantly, access websites, apps, and other cellular technologies with zero delay, and retrieve complex data at top speed.

Last year, in our whitepaper 10 Digital Advertising Trends to Look for in 2019, we predicted that 5G was going to quickly break into mainstream usage. But as you might have noticed, 5G has not become as ubiquitous as anticipated. In this post, we’ll take a look at what’s preventing 5G from becoming mainstream—and what the future could hold for the fastest cellular technology in the world.

5G: The Big Expectations

Why all the hype behind 5G cellular speed?

First off, 5G makes it possible for new technologies to succeed. Driverless cars, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality could transform the way we travel, consume, and communicate. But this type of technology needs high-speed data to operate. 5G creates that network, making it possible for people to use cutting-edge technologies from anywhere.

Not only that, but 5G transforms the user experience on cell phones. No longer will consumers have to rely on spotty 3G/4G networks or unreliable WiFi. They can have high-speed, instant access to the internet—and all applications—anywhere, anytime.

For advertisers and publishers, 5G could change the game by removing much of the need for ad-blockers. According to the 2016 Interactive Advertising Bureau study Who Blocks Ads, Why, and How to Win Them Back, the top reason for ad blocking is that advertising slows down the browsing experience. 5G effectively eliminates delays when loading webpages or apps so that consumers can have a fast browsing experience without using ad blockers. 

Still, 5G has not become mainstream. Despite its ability to effectively transform the public landscape and the mobile user experience, the vast majority of cell phone users continue to rely on 3G and 4G networks.

Let’s take a look at why:

Encountering Unexpected Technological Barriers

Even in large cities with 5G networks—such as Atlanta, Los Angeles, and New York—users are finding the 5G experience unreliable and spotty at best. Major networks such as T-Mobile use millimeter wave technology, which travels at high speeds over short distances. But a possible unanticipated outcome of this technology is the fact that the signal drops indoors. As a consequence, consumers are unable to use 5G at work, at home, in a restaurant, or anywhere else with four walls.

Likewise, these high-speed, short-distance waves require a nearby node to catch a signal. That might work fine in urban areas. But the 20% of Americans living in rural areas might find it next to impossible to locate a 5G node.

Lastly, consumers need to purchase a 5G-compatible smartphone to access this cellular speed. Unfortunately, ignorance is playing a role in limiting those purchases. Many people believe they already own a device that can access 5G. And, one in three people believe they’re already using this speed.

Facing Security Concerns

5G has been touted as a more secure cellular technology than its predecessors. And yet, research from Purdue University and the University of Iowa found a total of 11 vulnerabilities in 5G networks.

Many of these vulnerabilities are a carryover from 3G and 4G, such as the threat of “stingrays”—invasive tracking devices that pose as cell phone towers to spy on users. And while 5G does effectively address some security issues created by 4G, distributed networks and high-speed waves required for the new technology may generate entirely new opportunities for security breaches.

And in a time when cybersecurity is more important than ever, those opportunities are raising concerns, both nationally and globally.

In fact, the European Union Member States published a risk assessment report on rollouts of 5G cellular speed across Europe. While the report doesn’t explicitly address China as a threat, it does address the possibility of threats from “non-EU state or state-backed actors.” The report also suggests that 5G will create new entry points for attackers and increase risky dependency on major suppliers.

Aggravating U.S.-China Relations

Huawei is a Chinese technology company that makes and sells telecommunications equipment and consumer electronics. It’s also one of a small handful of companies worldwide that makes 5G equipment, making it a vital player in the rollout of this cellular technology.

But a recent ban on engaging with communications technology developed by a “foreign adversary” means that the U.S. will have to look elsewhere to purchase its 5G equipment.

Although the ban was not specifically aimed at Huawei, its intentions were clear. The U.S. has long been suspicious that the Chinese telecommunications company uses its equipment to spy on American networks, although there has been no verifiable proof of this.

There have been a few minor exceptions made to the ban, such as allowing some rural American network providers to continue using Huawei equipment. But in the meantime, the Trump administration remains staunchly opposed to making amends with the technology company. The U.S. has even publicly asked its allies to avoid engaging with Huawei to reduce possible security risks.

The result? The U.S.—and participating countries—could continue to lag behind China in the 5G rollout.

Moving Forward

Despite the many barriers that this technology faces in the U.S. and elsewhere, some remain optimistic about the global usage of 5G in 2020.

According to semiconductor manufacturer TSMC (which supplies Apple, Huawei, and Qualcom), worldwide penetration of 5G is expected to exceed 10% in 2020. The research firm Gartner also anticipates that 22% of phones sold in 2020 will be 5G-compatible. This projection is dependent on the development of so-called “killer apps,” which promise to deliver brand-new capabilities and technologies made possible by the super high speeds of 5G.

Only time will tell if 5G succeeds in overcoming significant technological, security-related, and geo-political barriers in 2020. In the meantime, publishers and advertisers should stay abreast of developments in rollouts of the technology, knowing that a 5G-powered world could completely transform the landscape of advertising and the consumer experience.