Madden: The 5G IoT market will disappoint you

Three different 5G meetings were held over the past 6 weeks in Dallas. At every conference, the same 5G IoT applications were discussed at length. And very few of these ideas have any merit.

Massive IoT connections: People talk about the connected home at 5G conferences, predicting 5G lightbulbs and refrigerators and thermostats chatting with each other. Why would anybody mention this topic in the context of 5G? These light bulbs and appliances currently use Bluetooth, 802.15.4, and other formats which are cheap and cheerful. Nobody needs low latency or high throughput. There’s no room in the business chain for a mobile operator because it’s a local network. Using these applications to justify 5G is simply wishful thinking.

Robotic Surgery: If I see one more Powerpoint presentation that highlights robotic surgery, I will go postal. There’s no problem with the engineering concept. Certainly 5G would be useful here to reduce latency and allow a surgeon to control the surgical tools precisely. But there’s a major problem with the business case. In the developed world, we use real surgeons, not robots. In the developing world or a rural hospital, a surgeon may not be available, so a remotely controlled surgical tool could be useful. Who will pay for this? Many African hospitals don’t even have money for mosquito nets. So while the health-care IoT market is booming, this will be a very small market.

The Self-Driving Car: A LIDAR system gathers about 30 Mbps of data. Each camera collects about 10 Mbps for high resolution. Radar systems, sonar systems, and V2V systems may add another 10 Mbps. In total, the autonomous car will process about 50 Mbps of data. But how much data will really be uploaded into the cloud? It’s simply not affordable to build out 5G infrastructure along the roadway so that we know the nuances of every pothole. Common sense tells me that cars will synthesize the data into short messages that say things like “pothole in Lane 2 at these coordinates” – instead of sending the entire 50 Mbps stream at all times. Mobile Experts will be publishing a market study on Automotive IoT Devices next week…and despite strong growth for other technologies, our forecast for 5G implementation is precisely zero through 2022.

Industrial Applications: This one may actually pay off. Remote operation of excavators, drones, and other remote devices can improve safety and effectiveness for industrial workers. Low latency is a critical enabler, and 5G is the only way to do it without wires. Most importantly, there is true economic value in the wireless connectivity. Our forecast runs into the range of 14 million 5G IoT devices in 2021, and this application area holds promise for ongoing growth.

The mobile telecom market created a trillion dollars in revenue this year. Will a new IoT application arise to drive 5G toward a trillion dollars? So far, I don’t see it. 2G brought us affordable voice calls. 3G brought rudimentary data, and 4G put the Internet in your pocket. In every case, people bought it on wired networks before they bought the mobile version. There’s no trillion-dollar “wired” market for IoT, so don’t expect a huge wave of 5G IoT to happen quickly.

Joe Madden is Principal Analyst at Mobile Experts LLC, a network of market and technology experts that analyze wireless markets. The team provides detailed research on Small Cell, Base Station, Carrier Wi-Fi, and IoT markets. Mr. Madden currently focuses on trends in 5G, IoT, and Enterprise markets for wireless infrastructure. Over 26 years in mobile communications, he accurately predicted the rise of Digital Predistortion, Remote Radio Heads, Small Cells, and the rise of a Mobile IT market. He validates his ideas with mobile and cable operators, as well as semiconductor suppliers to find the match between business models and technology. Mr. Madden holds a Physics degree from UCLA. Despite learning about economics at Stanford, he still obeys the laws of physics.