5G: drowning in a sea of numbers
Mar 04, 2019 by Manuel R. Marti


Have you ever wondered what comes after a trillion? Or how many zeros there are in a nonillion? From crime statistics to the cost of 5G, we don’t seem able to process figures we can’t relate to.

And, given that almost every business and government that touches our lives thinks in terms of millions, billions or even trillions, that’s something we should pause and reflect on.

A senior GSMA figure told reporters at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) that the deployment of 5G in Europe would cost €500 billion. “5G will cost one million euros per EU citizen,” she added.

This miscalculation (€1 million per EU citizen actually produces a figure of €500 trillion), which was widely covered in the media, raises many questions. If you combine the GDP of France, Germany and the UK, you get a total of €7.8 trillion… not even close to €500 trillion.

But as the BBC’s Michael Blastland once said: “Big numbers are only big if you understand the context.”

This numeracy pitfall only illustrates how 5G shoulders some heavy burdens, including national security and investment concerns.

We have all heard about Huawei’s nightmare by now: the world’s largest telecoms manufacturer is no longer trusted in many important countries.

Upgrading networks to 5G standards also requires billions of dollars of fresh cash and mobile carriers are struggling with how much they need to cover costs. 

In addition, the industry narrative too often has centred on the idea that every Internet of Things device will need a 5G connection in the future. This is highly debatable, but the sci-fi overtones of proposed use cases like driverless cars tend to obscure the true picture.

Cost estimates are certainly needed but 5G faces unique problems. It could just mean mobile services go a bit faster, or it could mean a step change in the digitisation of society, covering many industries and transforming our everyday lives through AI, VR and healthcare innovations.

This could mean moderate costs or it could mean huge costs, depending on deployment. Earlier mobile generations did not face such uncertainty. No wonder we’re confused about the numbers.•