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Searching for 5G killer apps? Here’s a reality check

Ever since our imagination was fired up 20 years ago by the possibility of being connected anytime and anywhere, the idea of finding a “killer app” that would take advantage of each new, revolutionary mobile technology has taken root.

Singapore is on track to have nationwide 5G coverage by 2025.

Singapore is on track to have nationwide 5G coverage by 2025.

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Ever since our imagination was fired up 20 years ago by the possibility of being connected anytime and anywhere, the idea of finding a “killer app” that would take advantage of each new, revolutionary mobile technology has taken root.

Today, as we have moved from 3G to 4G and will soon move to 5G, it is not surprising that there are wish lists among technology companies of signature killer apps for the new technology to draw consumers.

Singapore is on track to have nationwide 5G coverage by 2025, while other countries such as the United States, South Korea and China have also forged ahead with the new cellular network.

The search is on once again for killer apps that could jumpstart the adoption of the new technology. However, where 5G will truly make a real difference may be different from what many are saying today.

Let’s start by debunking some 5G myths. A good example is self-driving cars, which many proponents of 5G believe will require the new wireless technology to work.

Yet car manufacturers have already completed millions of test kilometres on public roads with their autonomous vehicles with hardly any commercial 5G networks operational today.

In other words, the link between 5G and the introduction of autonomous vehicles can easily be referred to the realm of myths.

Yes, 5G can aid the development of autonomous cars, for example, by enabling quick exchange of large amounts of data — such as software updates to the brakes, engine or other critical systems, or updates to cars’ navigation software. These are things a 4G network is not able to do.

However, calling autonomous cars a killer app for 5G is not quite right. Certainly, the success of autonomous cars would not depend on the availability of 5G.


The biggest advantages of 5G networks over existing 4G versions is the much faster speeds and lower latency, or signal delay.

With a (theoretical) maximum speed of 10 gigabits per second (Gbps) and a signal delay of less than one millisecond, 5G scores a few orders of magnitude better than today's 4G networks.

But which apps are we going to run on those 5G networks? The answers may be less spectacular than we think.

If you define a killer app as an application that will provide an influx of new users, you don't have to expect anything visionary or revolutionary — the 5G killer apps are the 4G killer apps, and the 4G killer apps were those applications that 3G promised but never delivered.

So, you are looking at more of the same, that is, live video, gaming, and cloud services on your phone. Boring? Well, yes, these will be important factors for 5G's takeup, at least initially. 


Does this mean that 5G won’t bring about the disruption that so many experts have prophesised? To be fair, there will be some killer apps that can be fundamentally disruptive as well.

The telephone dethroned the telegraph, after all, and 5G has the same disruptive potential. Beyond providing a better experience to what we already have on 4G now, here are five ways 5G can be truly disruptive:

1. Fibre-to-the-home networks

One application that 5G could potentially disrupt is the rollout of fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) networks — ultra-wideband networks where a fibre optic connection is extended to every front door.

According to market research companies, the roll-out of FTTH networks has an estimated market value of US$6 billion globally in 2020, yet its end could be near.

After all, for families and operators alike, 5G comes with many advantages over FTTH: Superfast Internet connectivity and an easy, non-destructive installation process that leaves streets and yards intact.    

2. The car radio

A second potential victim of 5G is the car radio as we know it. Although the latest generation of cars come equipped with advanced entertainment systems, most motorists still use the car radio.

The reason? Because you have to watch the road, and also because the signal delay that comes with 4G networks makes streaming live video, online learning, and gaming services in the car impossible for the time being.

However, people are attracted to moving images. That is why many tune in to a live video of the hosts on a radio show because this considerably enriches their experience.

You don't have to be a great visionary to realise what will happen when current 4G restrictions disappear, and we can make full use of our car entertainment systems.

What do we need for this to become a reality?

Advanced driver assistance systems that take over when we’re stuck in traffic jams, for example, and — you guessed it — the benefits of a 5G connection capable of providing us with superfast and reliable internet anytime, anywhere.

3. Mobile gaming via our smartphones

Traditional mobile gaming via our smartphones may also be on edge of complete disruption. Look at the popularity of games like Pokémon Go, which are enriched with augmented reality features that allow players in the real world to interact with fictional characters.

Today, those games typically run on our smartphones — but thanks to the rollout of 5G networks, they’ll look even more realistic in the future, with hyper-detailed 3D models superimposed on the real world.

This new generation of AR games will require a larger screen and a good connection to the cloud for streaming a 3D-enhanced world in real-time. With such an experience, classic mobile gaming via the smartphone will no longer be able to compete. 

4. Private Wi-Fi networks

5G will also put pressure on the private Wi-Fi networks deployed in factories, offices and airports.

Almost everyone nowadays can work wirelessly, but many still choose the ethernet cable on our desk because a fixed connection remains much more reliable. Hence, combining mobility and reliability, 5G might very well replace private Wi-Fi networks.

5. Fixed networks in large industrial complexes

5G’s mobility and inherent reliability features are a major advantage as well when it comes to monitoring — and eventually even controlling — machines, pumps, valves, and other parts used in industrial complexes.  

Today, the cables that connect these systems create an operational nightmare, especially if you regularly have to adapt the layout of your plant to new needs. 5G could revolutionise the production floor, bringing increased flexibility and ease of use, by replacing all those wires with a wireless system.     

Whether all of this will happen, only the future can tell. But 5G undoubtedly has the potential to push existing technologies to the exit, while at the same time creating new opportunities.

To be sure, the story is just beginning and there are many chapters yet to be written.



Dr Michael Peeters is the director of the Connectivity program at imec, a Belgium-based research and development and innovation hub that specialises in nanoelectronics and digital technologies.

Related topics

5G mobile wireless network apps telecommunication

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