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It’s officially springtime at last in the Northern Hemisphere, and a good time to… well, claim a springtime for the 5G era. This is no minor wave, but a complete sea change and a once-in-a-generation step in the ICT sector.

On a global basis, the picture looks very busy, and for those actually making investment, incredibly expensive. “At least” 211 operators are now investing in 5G, according to one consultant, which probably makes the technology one of the biggest infrastructure upgrades in recent global economic history. The investments involved are significant on national levels and sometimes have the power to astonish: according to one report, China alone will unleash an estimated 57 percent of its entire national technology spend on 5G this year.

Across Asia Pacific, countries continue to wake up, or claim they are waking up, to the potential of what it all means. For developing countries like Vietnam, 5G is seen as crucial to economic development by politicians. The trajectory for heavyweight markets such as India still seems difficult to call in the face of considerable regulatory uncertainty, but undoubtedly there will be a big impact from 5G over the next decade, according to experts.

Still, much debate hovers around what exactly the use cases for 5G are going to be. There have been impressive demonstrations across various sectors, both industrial and consumer as well as automotive. Indeed, the automotive sector is clearly in view as one of the most significant adopters of 5G at every level, experts report.

However, exactly how we think about innovation in 5G remains open to question, with some thinking that we will simply have to rely on discovering use cases, rather like what happened in the 4G and even 3G eras. Some suggest a more out-of-the-box approach, declaring that developing 5G should not be on the basis “of 4G thinking.”

Parallel, and to some extent overlapping, issues concern prospects for the Internet of Things (IoT) as a major driver. Some say that specific markets will be big, even if they look small, in IoT adoption patterns and deployment in the enterprise sector will be massive. Others caution not to expect near-term success, but to rationale use cases developing over “years.”

Too much spectrum, or not enough?
At the root of 5G and related wireless services are ongoing preoccupations about spectrum. Spectrum itself is not a trivial resource to manage, and untangling future considerations is the objective of this year’s World Radiocommunication Conference. Thailand sees continuing woes in auctioning its 700MHz spectrum, although there is reported optimism about the upcoming 2600MHz auctions, while the Philippines reported mulled redistributing spectrum for possible future new entrants.

As a potential sign of the times, bidding activity in recent U.S. spectrum auctions purportedly showed significant interest by service providers in the so-called high bands (24GHz plus). In prospect may be plenty more auctions, if (and when) 6G is seriously investigated, although that is probably still a decade away. For some, the focus is on the higher bands and there is already serious interest in very high (95GHz plus) bands if only at an experimental stage. As always, use cases are being questioned.

Spectrum experts meanwhile continue to devise ingenious ways to squeeze more performance from what they have in the (currently) much more valuable lower bands. Aggregation and related ideas provide intriguing ways to apparently get more for less in mixing resources from 4G and 5G. Other emerging possibilities include more opportunistic spectrum access for the future, effectively sharing scenarios. With so-called Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) approaches, the U.S. has taken the lead in spectrum sharing in otherwise occupied bands. More add-ons are expected. With a product ecosystem already in existence, the CBRS Alliance has been able to bring resources rapidly to market, and has announced plans to deliver 5G capabilities in 3.6GHz band, starting in 2020. It is not the only innovation being discussed, regulators say they are keen to look at various new possibilities of spectrum management for closing the digital divide.

More widely, some industry figures suggest the 5G era is signalling that “more rational” regulation is needed in the upcoming years. The landscape of who does what may visibly change as a result. CBRS-like developments, for example, hold out prospects of individual organizations getting involved in wireless service provision themselves. Self-provisioning on a local scale may be a feature of a new era still in its early stages. In the U.S., some municipalities are said to be on track to do the same for local networks.

A springtime boom?
On the international level, practically every subsector of our community looks to be in boom this springtime. In the satellite sector, big drivers this year are tipped to be backhaul, mobile growth, and VSAT. In March, with massive demand in progress, some fretted about capacity limits in subsea technology.

From the outside, however, it is the data center sector that seems to have most capacity to intrigue. Not content with the very great demand it already experiences, the data center community seems to be looking to ever more powerful drivers on a global basis. Esports and online gaming may be the next big thing in the marketplace, according to some.

These ideas seem to link plausibly with some prospective high-profile consumer applications in 5G, as it has been announced that four in five operators active in 5G plan launches “to deliver for sports events.”

The heady mix of booming demand (for some), new technology, and new applications continues to impact the ongoing debate about telco futures in this sector. For large incumbents, this is a huge task involving technology, strategy, and market management. Some telcos say they are already climbing this “transformation mountain.” On the network side, a wave of telco spending, of which 5G is part, is already in view. More “strategic requirements” for future networks will involve AI and big data. On a business level, partnerships and approach to Industry 4.0 is advocated by some even if consumers may be less important in this view. Intense pressures to leverage network capability is another angle. Some commentators question if telcos are really ready for the network evolution potentially required by the 5G era.

But in a transforming landscape for all organizations, the technology is only half the story. Digital transformation remains a key topic, not just within the industry but also outside it. And as transformation possibilities take hold, so do other concerns.

According to various commentators, boardrooms are waking up, it seems, to the “people” dimension. New organizational models are surfacing including proposals for platform-based organizational structures to cope with the ever-changing demand patterns in an ever more complex environment. Diversity is one of many related issues that still sees workplaces fail to involve those who are “different” and, in particular, the solitary staffer. In many offices, one is indeed a lonely number. Clearly, there is certainly room for further improvement in how even high technology organizations manage their individual employees.