CES 2023: what happened to 5G?

For anyone with even a smidge of an interest in the tech industry, CES (the Consumer Electronics Show) is always one to watch for the latest, greatest and weirdest things the tech world is working on.

Back to full in-person form again for the first time since 2019, 2023’s event didn’t disappoint. BMW’s colour changing car was something of a show stealer, and the sheer number of stands displaying next gen VR and AR headsets shows that the metaverse still has many believers. For those with an interest in telco, the announcement of Snapdragon Satellite, and its potential to bring emergency communication to anyone, literally anywhere, was equally exciting (and was a top highlight for one of Brands2Life’s Tech Trends 2023 panellists, Lucy Hedges, Technology Editor at The Metro – vindicating for the telco nerds!)

Yet scanning through this year’s event coverage one technology was notable by its absence: 5G. After being a hot topic of previous shows, it was noteworthy that of the hundreds of panels and sessions at the event, only a handful focused specifically on 5G and mobile technologies, with no headline 5G press announcements. So what’s going on? And what does this mean for us in tech & telco PR?

Are we 5G fatigued?

From powering autonomous cars to enabling remote robotic surgeries, previous iterations of CES had positioned 5G and its low latency/high data transfer as one of the most significant technologies of our generation. And while you could argue that 5G is “here” (there are an estimated 1 billion 5G users around the world, with 5G inside roughly half of all smartphones shipped worldwide in 2022), the much-hyped futuristic use cases we’ve seen at previous events were notably absent at CES 23.

The issue is that the rubber hasn’t yet hit the road for 5G. Its connectivity, while available to millions, is far from being considered as universal. What’s more, it’s not yet truly enabling the new and innovative business models that it has been promising for years.

One of the few panels at CES on 5G concluded that “5G wireless connectivity and other smart cities-related technologies may soon deliver on their promises.” The use of the vague words “may”, “soon” and “promises” sum up the ‘not-quite-there’ feel that surrounds the technology. Its absence from CES is perhaps a sign of the industry’s fatigue at its lack of fulfilment.

A brief respite in the 5G hype levels

Of course, widely implementing a whole new type of connectivity, and one which needs considerable infrastructure, was never going to be quick – and so it has proven. What we have seen is that 5G has improved existing applications for smartphones and other devices, but not so far been enough to power the anticipated connectivity revolution.

The current lull in 5G chatter in the most part is undoubtedly down to the saturation of its message among consumers. But I think it goes beyond that; there’s an ongoing sense of “so what?” – downloading the latest episode of The White Lotus on your phone in a few seconds is nice, but what about the “fourth industrial revolution” promised to us by at the outset of the 5G era? Slightly faster speeds and lower latency are good, but they aren’t enough to get consumers really excited about this new wave of connectivity. Without big, tangible developments 5G hasn’t quite lived up to the hype so far – but it should be given time.

Continuing to communicate 5G’s benefits as it takes hold

The combined 5G comms efforts of the last few years have done its job in making the world and its dog aware of the technology. Now as 5G connectivity continues to establish itself, comms should play a crucial role in reminding the world on its capabilities, especially where real life, successful use cases are emerging.

For service providers, they should be leveraging these stories where they exist, to remind users of what 5G enables – the key here is usable, exciting connectivity, that translates to real-life scenarios beyond trade show booths.

For service providers with rural customers, there’ll equally be a challenge in communicating the benefits of this technology where many may still be grumbling about getting decent access to 4G, and even 3G connectivity. The key here will be in showing that 5G won’t just benefit built up and urban areas. Showcasing rural applications of the technology is crucial, whether in automated farming or monitoring renewable energy sources.

So, what next for 5G? …Roll on MWC Barcelona 2023

Fortunately for us in tech PR, it’s never too long to wait until the next tech trade show, and with it the next raft of eye-catching developments. The next ‘biggee’ in the calendar is Mobile World Congress (MWC) Barcelona 2023, taking place at the end of February.

And while it may not feel like it at first glance, there is very much a link between what we see at both CES and MWC, with the latter providing the “how” to CES’s previous 5G “why.”

My hope is that we’ll see at MWC improvements in 5G infrastructure technologies that will help to expedite the technology’s roll out. This will help to push 5G out of the current “trough of disillusionment”, and firmly onto the “slope of enlightenment”. Seeing solid 5G stories will help to bring the technology back to the headlines, as its tangible use cases become more realistic.

I’ll be watching closely to see what’s in store at CES 2024.

Written by Doug Anson, Account Director, Business & Technology

On the topic of tradeshows, and also off the back of CES, Brands2Life’s Consumer Managing Director Laura Sibley has shared her thoughts with PR Moment on the future of tradeshows and their role in the comms mix – it’s well worth a read. You can find the article here.