Mobile World Congress 2018: Don’t Expect 5G Service Anytime Soon

Many of the first use cases for 5G will offer little to the average person

A 5G sign is seen at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain February 28, 2018
Photo: Yves Herman/Reuters
5G report logo, link to report landing page

This is, unquestionably, the year for 5G. It’s obvious from the sheer number of booths displaying 5G demos and announcements this year at Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona. There was also an overwhelming number of Internet of Things-related announcements, sure, but even many of those were about how 5G will enable new capabilities for IoT networks.

5G is coming this year—but it isn’t for you. Not yet.

The general sense at MWC is that 5G will revolutionize mobile communication, and it’s hard to argue with that. The hallmarks of 5G—millimeter waves, massive MIMO, beamforming—allow for previously unachievable precision, data rates, and network capacity. 5G will finally make technologies possible that engineers have worked on and struggled with for years.

Much of what 5G promises to offer beyond existing 4G LTE networks—high data capacity and low latency in particular—will of course make its way into smartphones, but those weren't on display this year. Because 5G coverage will require such a massive overhaul to existing network design, the more immediate use cases will be far more localized. Robotics, autonomous vehicles, virtual reality—these will be the first things to benefit from 5G.


The Groupe Spéciale Mobile Association (GSMA) hosts MWC, and they made a point of devoting a significant portion of their (very) large Innovation City booth to the possibilities for 5G technology. Dozens of exhibits centered around three general stories, or three areas that 5G would drastically improve: entertainment, virtual reality, and transportation.

Of these, entertainment is the area that will most directly impact the largest number of people. KT Corporation—fresh off their 5G demos during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics—showed the difference in video streaming quality using 4G and 5G networks. A ball rolled down a ramp was filmed by cameras attached to drones hanging overhead, and visitors could compare the streams. Not only was the simulated 5G network crisper with less latency, the big promise of 5G in this area is coordinating those drones.

Operating and coordinating a drone network to film, say, a sporting event requires a lot of communication. Not only does each drone need to continuously stream HD video back to a central cloud, it also needs to receive regular instructions, as well as updates on where the other drones in its swarm are and what they’re filming at that time.

The next big use case, virtual reality, has been a niche market for years. That’s partly due to its prohibitively expensive barrier to entry—not only do you have to buy the headset, but you also need a powerful enough computer to process everything. The multiplayer, full-body immersive VR experiences on display this year at MWC will require even more gadgets to track different body motions, and more processing power to accurately render your partners’ motions in as close to real time as possible. But the slow rate of adoption is also do to VR sickness, often induced by the lag between when you move your head to look at something and when the virtual view shifts.

There is some hope in Innovation City that 5G can push much of the processing from a local server to the cloud without introducing intolerable latency. After all, 5G will have data rates capable of sending such information out and back to a remote location, thereby eliminating the need for the VR player to own a top-of-the-line computer. And 5G could certainly reduce the lag that causes VR sickness by updating the headset on what it should display more quickly after you turn your head.

But even then, the VR game also on display by KT Corporation, a creatively-titled two-player game called “Special Force VR: Universal War” which involved shooting down waves of equally creatively-named monsters including crawlers, leviathans, and mutants in a vaguely post-apocalyptic cityscape, will almost definitely not be something for the average person to use in their home. This is due to the huge investment required for equipment and space, since you need empty space in the real world to walk around a VR environment.

For now, most immersive VR experiences will probably be like the one just around the corner in Innovation City that Huawei’s cloud was powering. Eventually destined for museums, the simulation was a simulation of what a near-future NASA moon mission might be like. The four-minute demo featured a “trip” down an elevator from the landing module to the moon’s surface, complete with foam blocks augmented in the VR space to be handheld screens that would identify points of interest by name.

GSMA’s last big promise for 5G—transportation—was most extravagantly exhibited by eHANG’s taxi drone. A flying drone large enough to fit one passenger, the drone will debut later this year, ferrying passengers from Dubai’s airport to high-end hotels. And while the drone is perfectly capable of flying itself, a remote pilot is on-hand for now, both to reassure passengers and to take over at a moment’s notice.

Of course, 5G service could allow a remote driver to steer a taxi-sized drone, or help that drone to communicate with its surroundings. This will be especially useful as more of these drones begin to operate.

Left out of the MWC exhibits were the nitty-gritty, practical demonstrations of what the actual network infrastructure to provide 5G service in, say, a city will look like. To be sure, that technology was on display, and there are certainly people and companies thinking about that, but that’s not where the spotlights were.

Beyond Innovation City, Ericsson partnered with automation company Comou to demonstrate 5G-enabled factory robots capable of working wirelessly and analyzing themselves for damage in real-time. Qualcomm displayed its Snapdragon processors that provide cars with the processing power necessary to handle 5G data rates. HTC had rows of their own immersive, multiplayer VR experiences, while one of Samsung’s three booths often contained rows of people enthralled in immersive snowboarding experiences.

That was the focus of 5G this year at MWC—not the infrastructure, but the first applications. And it’s clear that those applications, while exciting, will not make much of a difference to the average person. 5G is coming, and it will eventually be our de facto network for our mobile phones—but this year, it’s not for you. It’s for drones filming sports events, for museums offering tours of the moon, and for high-flying taxi drones en route to upscale hotels.

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