5G is less important now. What’s going wrong?

I read this week that 5G is now considered ‘less important’ for 41% of business executives in the wake of Covid-19. Just 5% think it’s much more important. While that isn’t a big surprise, I think it’s a glimpse of the challenges operators will face as they try and recover the gargantuan sums they are investing in 5G.

Recent months have been about survival of the fittest. And while change is an accepted part of doing business, plans really have been turned upside down as the economy tanked, uncertainty dug in, and an ever changing set of rules came from the government.

This kind of change means that today’s issues, (which could quite literally have become very different to yesterday’s and are likely to be different again to tomorrow’s), become the talking point at the boardroom table. The long-term plan gets shoved aside.

It’s a really common behaviour at the moment. The ‘Covid effect’ boils down to obsessing on the here and now and not adjusting at the detriment of the long term strategic plans. Decisions are deferred, expenditure is questioned, cuts are made.

But as history can tell us, fortune favours the brave.

So, it’s no surprise then that despite the question mark over 5G’s relevance, Vodafone is still forecasting a big upside to 5G. True enough the cynical can say Vodafone has a vested interest in making 5G happen, but its whole approach to the pandemic has been one of accepting its role as a critical service provider and stepping up. It’s seen and helped demonstrate the bigger picture and provided the technology solutions and support to boot.

The alternative approach, which we’ve also seen in the industry, is to entrench. Reduce marketing expenditure. Furlough staff. Reduce service levels.

Setting aside the retail hardships, in an industry like telecoms such an approach can only lead to more misery – ultimately you lose momentum and catching up becomes much more challenging.

It’s a two-fold approach that’s needed: 1. Now, 2: next year. There’s an immediate need to look at the services 5G can help companies innovate and deliver tomorrow and react to what customers want now. As Peter Scott illustrates in this piece in The Daily Telegraph, understanding your service model and how people want to shop and buy a product can differentiate a brand.

If you can put someone in touch with an expert in a store by video you are helping them make better use of their time and feel secure about the choices they make and the brands they gravitate to. Your assistants are less exposed to risk and can do what they do best: explain and demonstrate the latest washing machine or smart speaker and close a sale.

But for me it’s not just about the technology, it’s about the attitude towards longer term planning. Now is the time for boards in retail, travel and utilities in particular to review their five year plan, use the intel they have gathered over the last few months, think about their customer segments again and, if necessary, alter course, make new investments and keep moving forward towards the vision.

We are still very much in the throes of a marathon when it comes to managing the pandemic. I’d therefore argue that 5G and the assorted technologies it supports, like AI, AR and VR, and M2M IoT, can help long-term recovery in so many ways. It shouldn’t be dismissed.

There’s much to gain from investing in this vision – more accurate billing, more varied and personalised entertainment and subscription services, smarter city living and travel options. The operators are starting to bring to life the possibilities and show how investment can deliver ROI quickly. Investing in collaborative trials and pilots is a definite option for the execs who are brave.

Yes, there are definite use cases to deliver today – there’s the urgent use case for temperature monitoring at tickets turnstiles and access gates for instance. But there’s also the longer-term vision for using 5G to enable IoT that can help with things that have hit the public’s conscience since lockdown, such as managing food security and supply chains, to greener living and everything in between. It’s a perfect PR opportunity to strike now.

To sum up, I would see it as an opportunity that only 5% of companies think 5G is more important and relevant in a CV-19 world. Those 5% are the brands that can see its potential and are the ones to watch. They are already rethinking their strategy and making the link between innovation and recovery. And I believe that it’s those companies that will become even more relevant to people and help them live better connected lives. And what’s more they will be the businesses that swerve becoming another casualty in the long-run.

James Gray

About James Gray

James has over 20 years of experience working in the telecoms and retail industries. He is an expert in subscription-based business models, CRM, direct and indirect channel management and major proposition development and launches. He has held a number of Marketing Director and Consumer Director roles.