Ministers and government officials have been enthusiastically extolling the benefits of 5G mobile technologies for years, but a new inquiry suggests that the government still isn’t fully clear about what the new technology is good for.

With submissions due by 1 November, the Inquiry into 5G in Australia has been established with terms of reference including to “investigate the capability, capacity and deployment of 5G” and to “understand the application of 5G, including use cases for enterprise and government”.

5G technology “will transform the way we live and work, and provide opportunities for family life, industry and commerce,” chair Dr David Gillespie – the member for Lyne, on NSW’s mid north coast – said in announcing the inquiry, which will be managed by the Standing Committee on Communications and the Arts.

“It will power smart homes and cities and provide new ways to experience entertainment, and at the same time transform transport, logistics and industry…. We want to hear about the opportunities and challenges of 5G.”

A familiar refrain

The inquiry’s terms of reference are similar to those espoused by many 5G advocates over several years.

Incoming Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts Paul Fletcher, for one, flagged the new opportunities that 5G would provide for government and business – which, he said, do not include competing with the NBN – as he took over the portfolio from Mitch Fifield in May.

Fletcher’s enthusiasm reflected that of a statement from Fifield last year, which said that 5G “will change the way people use, and rely on, mobile services” and “enable a new wave of innovation across our community”, flagging applications such as connecting critical infrastructure; underpinning the development of smart cities and Internet of Things (IoT); and enable applications like remote surgery and autonomous vehicles.

Yet the government has been here before, with an October 2017 white paper, 5G – Enabling the future economy, outlining the government’s belief that “5G is more than an incremental change for mobile communications”.

Use cases outlined at the time included “higher quality and more video services”; “massive scale automation”; “delivery of critical communications” including low-latency support for autonomous vehicles; and better productivity thanks to “high quality, real time data analytics”.

These, in turn, are similar to the use cases highlighted by 5G advocates like Ericsson and Nokia – which calls widely-published lists of use cases “headline grabbers” that “don’t necessarily answer fundamental questions about what is realistic or achievable and makes business sense.”

“The list of use cases grows every day, and it’s becoming more challenging to pick out the leaders and potential winners”.

Getting down to business

Despite regular speculation about smart cities and self-driving cars, actual 5G applications are still emerging slowly.

Even as real-world usage shows 5G is actually slower than existing 4G networks, developers are lauding 5G’s low latency for applications such as Telstra’s recent 8K virtual reality demo.

Access to 5G-capable devices will be critical in the technology’s broader adoption, with Apple panned for the lack of 5G support in its high-priced iPhone 11 range even as television makers rush to incorporate the technology into always-connected 8K devices.

Despite consumer expectations, some experts have cautioned consumers to temper their enthusiasm, noting that most 5G use cases will be targeted at business users.

Last year, a Deloitte white paper flagged expectations that 5G would increase productivity by up to 0.2% per year, boosting GDP by $50b, with 78 per cent of businesses agreeing that faster, more reliable mobile telecommunications would benefit their business – most significantly through enabling remote work, improving customer engagement, and longer battery life.

The government formed a 5G working group in late 2017 to promote industry collaboration – but despite the planning, observers have warned that the continuing rollout of 5G technology risks being hobbled by red tape.

“The process for making spectrum available for new uses, such as 5G, should not be this difficult, complex and time consuming,” Holding Redlich partner Angela Flannery wrote in a recent analysis of the 5G policy, noting the numerous steps involved in the more than two-year ramp-up to the enabling 3.6GHz spectrum auction at the end of last year.