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5G: more than a new generation of mobiles?

Pierre-Jean Benghozi
Pierre-Jean Benghozi
CNRS Research Director at I³-CRG* and Professor of Digital Economics at École polytechnique (IP Paris) and the University of Geneva

Mobile phone gen­er­a­tions change approx­i­mate­ly every 10 years. Yet, more than any oth­er, the deploy­ment of 5G has ignit­ed pub­lic debate 12. The rea­son for this is large­ly due to the dif­fi­cul­ty of defin­ing the chal­lenges of a tech­nol­o­gy which, beyond its tech­ni­cal inno­va­tions and asso­ci­at­ed ser­vices, in many respects rep­re­sents a major break­through. Admit­ted­ly, the first appli­ca­tions will con­sist main­ly of mak­ing exist­ing net­works denser, or even, in some coun­tries, com­plet­ing very high-speed cov­er­age. But 5G’s inno­va­tions, flex­i­bil­i­ty and per­for­mance will be a rev­o­lu­tion for the indus­try: it’s not just about see­ing movies on Net­flix faster. Unlike pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions, its mar­ket is main­ly that of the indus­tri­al sec­tor, offer­ing, like fibre optics, a for­mi­da­ble oppor­tu­ni­ty for digitalisation.

A technical system for new services

Tech­ni­cal­ly, 5G is a sys­tem with com­ple­men­tary poten­tial that responds specif­i­cal­ly to dif­fer­ent needs. First­ly, 5G aims to avoid con­ges­tion of 4G by respond­ing to the annu­al dou­bling of data exchanged on telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions net­works. Sec­ond, 5G improves the qual­i­ty of mobile telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion ser­vices: for pub­lic use (speed, mobil­i­ty) and, to a greater extent, for the spe­cif­ic needs of mul­ti­ple sec­tors such as health, ener­gy, auto­mo­bile, local author­i­ties, media, and agriculture.

There are sev­er­al types of inno­va­tion behind this poten­tial. First­ly, there is the capac­i­ty 3 to mas­sive­ly con­nect many objects (tens of thou­sands of con­tain­ers in a port, for exam­ple). Sec­ond­ly, it offers the pos­si­bil­i­ty of ensur­ing crit­i­cal, low-laten­cy com­mu­ni­ca­tions, par­tic­u­lar­ly with the arrival of con­nect­ed autonomous vehi­cles, which require almost instan­ta­neous reac­tions. Third­ly, it also pro­vides the abil­i­ty to dynam­i­cal­ly mod­u­late the con­fig­u­ra­tion of a telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions net­work 4 to opti­mise its simul­ta­ne­ous use by appli­ca­tions with dif­fer­ent con­straints (data vol­ume, secu­ri­ty, imme­di­a­cy, high speed) – for exam­ple, think of mul­ti­ple uses in pub­lic areas such as rail­way stations.

5G also relies on localised use of new fre­quen­cy ranges known as mil­lime­tre fre­quen­cies – indoors or out­doors – open­ing up to par­tic­u­lar­ly high band­widths and speeds; par­tic­u­lar­ly use­ful for the remote con­trol and dri­ving of indus­tri­al machin­ery or robots. 5G also aims to improve the ener­gy per­for­mance of mobile net­works by aggre­gat­ing sev­er­al fre­quen­cies, by mobil­is­ing active “intel­li­gent” anten­nas (which are only acti­vat­ed when nec­es­sary 5) or, on the con­trary, very small ones 6. Final­ly, 5G relies on flex­i­ble infra­struc­ture archi­tec­tures through the vir­tu­al­i­sa­tion of net­work func­tions 7 and the con­cen­tra­tion of base sta­tions in coop­er­a­tive mode 8.

5G in concrete terms

5G thus com­bines the imple­men­ta­tion of dis­rup­tive tech­nolo­gies (active anten­nas, mil­lime­tre waves, smart cells) with the pos­si­bil­i­ty of inno­va­tion, in a more pro­gres­sive man­ner, of app ser­vices, based on ini­tia­tives, play­ers and invest­ments made at dif­fer­ent lev­els. 5G should there­fore not be seen from a “tech­no-push” per­spec­tive, i.e. a tech­nol­o­gy that is imposed and defines impacts in an unequiv­o­cal man­ner. But in a “demand-pull vision”, it is a set of tech­no­log­i­cal resources form­ing a sys­tem, open­ing up the pos­si­bil­i­ty of new inno­va­tions and appli­ca­tions, which com­pa­nies can seize.

The obser­va­tion of deploy­ments made today reflects this para­dox­i­cal per­cep­tion. On the one hand most experts, includ­ing oper­a­tors, insist on the fact that 5G (and its eco­nom­ic mod­el) main­ly responds to the needs of major busi­ness sec­tors and indus­tries. The exper­i­ments opened by Arcep since 2018, as well as the devel­op­ments already under­way abroad, thus pro­vide a good vision of the var­i­ous use cas­es for which 5G is expect­ed. These are: the equip­ment of large sports are­nas, pub­lic spaces such as sta­tions, ports and air­ports where indus­tri­al activ­i­ty and the pub­lic at large are com­bined, dig­i­tal­i­sa­tion of indus­tri­al sec­tors such as the elec­tric and con­nect­ed auto­mo­bile sec­tor, improve­ment of health ser­vices (from tele­con­sul­ta­tion to remote inter­ven­tions), and sup­port­ing automa­tion of spe­cif­ic indus­tri­al uses, par­tic­u­lar­ly in high-risk environments.

How­ev­er, the super­vi­sion of deploy­ments by pub­lic play­ers such as Arcep 9 or ANFR 10 con­tin­ues to focus, as tra­di­tion­al­ly, on con­sumer uses. They reg­u­lar­ly report, month after month, on the deploy­ment of 5G sites (30,092 autho­rised in Novem­ber 2021, of which 19,824 are oper­a­tional). They analyse the cov­er­age and com­pare the qual­i­ty of ser­vice offered to every­day users by each oper­a­tor (speed and cov­er­age). These mea­sure­ments are impor­tant, as they show that the pace of devel­op­ment is much faster than for 3G or 4G. How­ev­er, noth­ing has been done to cal­i­brate the devel­op­ment of indus­tri­al uses.

5G business models

Over­all, 5G rep­re­sents a real wall of invest­ment. It is not sur­pris­ing, there­fore, that its soci­etal inter­est is a source of debate. On the one hand, the empha­sis on the needs of the gen­er­al pub­lic obscures those of busi­ness­es. On the oth­er, eco­nom­ic mod­els of telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion oper­a­tors, equip­ment man­u­fac­tur­ers, plat­forms or appli­ca­tion providers, and user com­pa­nies are inter­twined. They call for broad inter­op­er­abil­i­ty of data, appli­ca­tions, and net­works, but also cre­ate new forms of ver­ti­cal com­pe­ti­tion between infra­struc­tures, oper­a­tors, new inter­me­di­aries, and play­ers in indus­tri­al sectors.

Sev­er­al ways of look­ing at the rise of 5G are thus emerg­ing, depend­ing on whether it is seen as a sim­ple exten­sion of 4G, as a sup­port for local pri­vate net­works, as an inte­gral part of oper­a­tors’ busi­ness offers, or as the basis for the dig­i­tal­i­sa­tion of com­pa­nies and sup­ply chains. Far from sim­ply redefin­ing the bal­ance between con­sumer and busi­ness uses, 5G’s func­tion­al­i­ties trans­late into new artic­u­la­tions between the nation­al and ter­ri­to­r­i­al lev­els (city dis­tricts, busi­ness areas, com­pa­nies, sta­di­ums, or hospitals).

For nation­al and ter­ri­to­r­i­al cov­er­age, oper­a­tors bear the costs (fre­quen­cy pur­chas­es, site con­struc­tion and infra­struc­ture deploy­ment) 11. Users thus have a tech­nol­o­gy for which only the cost of use is charged to them (in ways that have yet to be sta­bilised). How­ev­er, they must bear the con­sid­er­able costs of appro­pri­a­tion, digi­ti­sa­tion of process­es, devel­op­ment of ser­vices and change man­age­ment. For local and pri­vate deploy­ments, it is the com­pa­nies that invest in the con­struc­tion and main­te­nance of their own infra­struc­ture. This gives pow­er­ful indus­tri­al play­ers an advan­tage, but the invest­ment wall is also an incen­tive for pool­ing strate­gies as seen in air­port areas or in large projects such as the Olympic Games or smart cities.

1Cet arti­cle est inspiré d’une con­tri­bu­tion à l’ouvrage « Qua­tre champs de bataille iconomiques, coor­don­né par L. Bloch, H. Cheva­lier, J‑P. Corniou et M. Volle, Insti­tut de l’Iconomie edi­tions, 158 p.
2Cf. le récent rap­port de l’Académie des sci­ences (https://​www​.acad​e​mie​-sci​ences​.fr/​f​r​/​R​a​p​p​o​r​t​s​-​o​u​v​r​a​g​e​s​-​a​v​i​s​-​e​t​-​r​e​c​o​m​m​a​n​d​a​t​i​o​n​s​-​d​e​-​l​-​A​c​a​d​e​m​i​e​/​5​g​-​r​e​s​e​a​u​x​-​c​o​m​m​u​n​i​c​a​t​i​o​n​s​-​m​o​b​i​l​e​s​.html), celui de l’ANSES (https://​www​.ans​es​.fr/​f​r​/​s​y​s​t​e​m​/​f​i​l​e​s​/​A​P​2​0​1​9​S​A​0​0​0​6​_​A​v​i​s​_​5​G​_​c​o​n​s​u​l​t​a​t​i​o​n.pdf) ou de l’ANFR, ain­si que le très com­plet dossier réu­ni par l’Arcep (https://​www​.arcep​.fr/​l​a​-​r​e​g​u​l​a​t​i​o​n​/​g​r​a​n​d​s​-​d​o​s​s​i​e​r​s​-​r​e​s​e​a​u​x​-​m​o​b​i​l​e​s​/​l​a​-​5​g​.html)
3Appelée MIMO (mul­ti­ple-input and mul­ti­ple-out­put)
4On par­le de net­work slic­ing
5On par­le alors de beam­form­ing
6small cells
7NFV (net­work func­tion vir­tu­al­iza­tion)
8Cloud Ran
9Autorité de régu­la­tion des Com­mu­ni­ca­tions élec­tron­iques, des postes et de la dis­tri­b­u­tion de la pesse
10Agence nationale des fréquences
11Les opéra­teurs français con­sacrent ain­si 10 Mds et près d’un quart de leur CA en France aux investisse­ments dans les réseaux fixe et mobile

Contributors

Pierre-Jean Benghozi

Pierre-Jean Benghozi

CNRS Research Director at I³-CRG* and Professor of Digital Economics at École polytechnique (IP Paris) and the University of Geneva

A specialist in the digital economy, from 2013 to 2019 Pierre-Jean Benghozi was a member of the College of the Electronic communication regulations authority (Arcep) and is currently chairing a mission to evaluate the France very high speed internet plan.
*I³-CRG: a joint research unit of CNRS, École Polytechnique - Institut Polytechnique de Paris, Télécom Paris, Mines ParisTech