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5G: Unloved, Unwanted or Unknown?

Why 5G is widely misunderstood by consumers

By Jan-Piet Nelissen, Marc Beijn and Erik Hoving

By educating consumers, the telecoms industry could dispel the negative sentiment around the new mobile technology.

In Europe, 5G mobile services have yet to capture the imagination of consumers. In fact, many Europeans could be described as “anti-5G” - either because they are opposed to new cellphone masts or they are worried about the health impact of more electromagnetic radiation.

Such negative sentiments pose a thorny challenge for the telecoms industry, as it looks to use 5G to expand into new markets. Although 5G is widely-regarded as a potentially transformative technology for businesses, it will also need to be embraced by consumers. If not, telcos won’t realise the full efficiency benefits presented by 5G and will struggle to justify their investment in new spectrum licenses, new cell sites and 5G core infrastructure.

To date, European telcos have largely failed to sell 5G to consumers, in contrast to some of their counterparts in East Asia. In Europe, 5G penetration is in the low single digits, while in South Korea, it is at 15% and is growing at two percentage points per quarter1

Although 5G is designed to provide faster, more responsive and more reliable connectivity than its predecessors, many consumers aren’t convinced of its worth. Only half (52%) of 36,150 consumers in Europe and China surveyed by Deloitte in the 2020 edition of the Global Mobile Consumer Survey, said they expect to have better connectivity with a move to 5G. Among the 1,953 respondents in the Netherlands, that figure fell to just 42% (compared with 87% in China). 

Such scepticism has translated into a lack of demand. Less than one quarter (24%) of the 5,254 consumers in Australia, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Japan and the U.S. surveyed by GSMA Intelligence2 said the ability to connect to 5G would be an important feature for their next phone purchase. That trails far behind battery life (71%), durability (61%) and camera quality (48%). 

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Operators signal 5G is nothing special

Rather than trying to position 5G as a premium proposition, many telcos seem to have tacitly confirmed consumers’ suspicions that it is nothing special. Here in the Netherlands, operators are offering 5G tariff plans at the same price as 4G tariff plans, implicitly signalling that 5G isn’t a major step forward. As things stand, that is largely true – mobile operators have yet to harness the higher spectrum frequencies and the network infrastructure required to enable 5G networks to deliver a step change in throughput and responsiveness. As a result, today’s 5G networks (running in low frequency spectrum) have little to offer consumers beyond what is available from 4G. Rather than racing to be first to launch 5G nationwide, operators could have waited until they had the spectrum needed to deliver a step change in performance.

Although 5G networks have more capacity and greater throughput than their 4G counterparts, most people aren’t looking for faster mobile broadband. Only 2% of Dutch consumers are not happy with the speed of 4G, according to a survey published by Telecompaper3 in December 2020. However, in the absence of 5G that could change – 4G networks lack the capacity to accommodate the exponential growth of data usage by consumers. 

At the same time, many consumers are fretting about what more cellular antennas might mean for their health and the environment. Although there is no scientific evidence to suggest that 5G radio signals are harmful, a sizeable minority of consumers are fearful. In Deloitte’s Global Mobile Consumer Survey, 17% of Dutch respondents believe there are health risks associated with 5G, whereas 41% of respondents don’t know or are ambivalent. These fears may have been heightened by the broader health anxiety resulting from the pandemic. In the UK, the Netherlands and Belgium, dozens of 5G towers have been set on fire by activists convinced that they were spreading the coronavirus.

Even after the pandemic subsides, the vandalism could continue. One UK mobile operator has noted that new masts “often arouse passionate opposition from residents objecting to their location, height and look…. Residents opposed to masts have sometimes blockaded mast sites and prevented our engineering crews from entering, or have even resorted to vandalising equipment.”

Repositioning 5G for the future

To counter the negative sentiments around 5G, telcos and their partners may need to go on an education drive. In Deloitte’s Global Mobile Consumer Survey, 60% of the respondents acknowledged that they do not know enough about 5G.

The telecoms industry should engage with other stakeholders, including national and local governments, to explain to people and communities why 5G is needed, the economic and social benefits it can bring and the scientific evidence that radio signals are not harmful to human health. As outlined in Deloitte’s TMT predictions for 2021, the 5G ecosystem needs to counter misinformation and highlight why 5G may have even lower potential health impacts than earlier generations of mobile telephony. 

Such an information campaign could build on consumers’ positive sentiment about some 5G applications, such as intelligent traffic management systems and health monitoring solutions. The industry could also put more effort into making 5G masts less intrusive. Although such measures will add to deployment costs, they could pay off in the longer term.

In the Netherlands, at least, the telecoms industry will have an opportunity to relaunch 5G once it has access to the 3.5GHz spectrum to be licensed in April 2022. In these frequency bands, 5G networks will be able to offer relatively high throughput over reasonably wide areas and a more discernible improvement over 4G. This stronger proposition needs to be supported by clear and compelling messaging that will persuade consumers to buy into a 5G future.  Now, is the time to start planning the 5G comeback.

[1] Source:
https://data.gsmaintelligence.com/api-web/v2/research-file-download?id=58621970&file=141220-Global-Mobile-Trends.pdf

[2] Source:
https://data.gsmaintelligence.com/api-web/v2/research-file-download?id=58621970&file=141220-Global-Mobile-Trends.pdf

[3] Source:
The Telecompaper survey, published in December 2020

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