woman holding silver iPhone 6

After showcases like CES and Samsung Unpacked, the mobile tech space is off to a strong start in 2024. While mobile hardware continues to get better, the global telecoms industry has also announced that 6G is coming in 2030. However, carriers are concerned that delayed 5G uptake will cut into profits and hamper 6G in the future.

Marketing 5G

After being revealed in 2019, we are now four years into the 5G rollout. However, most cellular networks and their users still operate on 4G or 4G LTE. 4G coincided with the rise of smartphones, necessitating a quick and seamless transfer from old blocky handsets to sleek touchscreens. Now, 5G has the extra challenge of marketing itself against its predecessor when the underlying tech – the smartphone – hasn’t experienced a drastic shift.

In theory, marketing a better network should be easy. There are concrete benefits from 5G for consumers – mainly speed and flexibility. During the rollout, some services like Sky Mobile have tried to provide free 5G upgrades as part of other plans. It’s reminiscent of tactics used by streaming services or other online businesses like iGaming. In those spaces, there’s always a free trial or some new customer casino bonuses like free spins waiting for those who try the services out. Likewise, 5G has been pushed by carriers as a convenient upgrade to consumer mobile plans for little to no extra cost.

Why is the 5G Rollout Struggling?

As mentioned, there was a big shift between the phones pre-2008 and the phones post-2008. 4G also introduced a lot of functionality that just wasn’t feasible on 3G, again partly because the hardware was so restricted.

4G enabled video calling, streaming, and online collaboration via mobile. Meanwhile, 5G’s big draws are VR/AR and near-instant communication between smart home networks, including smart vehicles. Unfortunately, that’s a list of use cases that haven’t taken off yet. While each one undeniably has an appeal, there are technological and economic setbacks that hold us back from the virtual reality entertainment future where self-driving cars are the norm. It may be that the marketing for 5G was too forward-facing, staking its marketing drive on speculative nice-to-haves.

No one would deny that supporting those use cases is critical for the future. However, it seems to be hurting 5G adoption right now. This hasn’t been helped by a staggered rollout process from country to country, hampered by regulatory oversight. There is a difference between standalone and non-standalone 5G infrastructure, the latter being repurposed/upgraded 4G that doesn’t work as well as standalone. Being the more cost-effective and speediest option, pre-existing infrastructure has been used, but this limited 5G upgrades to urban centres.

There’s also a fundamental difficulty when delivering 5G to more rural, sparsely populated areas. 5G connects smart devices by using the 24 – 40 gigahertz band on the spectrum. While that’s great for keeping data usage down, those high-frequency transmissions travel shorter distances than lower-frequency counterparts. Put simply, they can’t reach. This necessitates even more cell infrastructure than 4G and other iterations required in the first place.

If 5G doesn’t take the world by storm in the next few years, network providers may feel burned over their investment in the upgrade. That could also stop them from jumping in on 6G the moment it becomes available.

There seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel for network providers – the hardware is coming. While it’s true that smartphones haven’t drastically changed in format or capability (except maybe sharper cameras and losing headphone jacks), there are still better phone models being produced every year. Even if the public are slow on the uptake, they will gradually transition to 5G-native smartphones.

According to a report from Ericsson, there have been 1,000 5G smartphone models launched so far. Nearly a quarter – 240 – were in 2023 alone. The adoption will happen, it’s just a matter of when and if infrastructure can catch up to make 5G more profitable for carriers. If they can’t, it risks stunting the early growth of 6G and creating a knock-on effect that limits future network upgrades.