Why 5G needs AI: A technology-driven revolution lacking initial user demand

Baris Kavakli

Does 5G need AI to bring out its use case? The rollout of 5G technology has been a significant milestone in the telecommunications industry, promising unprecedented speeds, lower latency, and enhanced connectivity. Hot on the heels of previous innovations, an expansion in connectivity (both coverage and speed) is usually met with increased demand and increased adoption. But so far, this is not the case for 5G. So our Managing Director and Senior Partner Baris Kavakli asks, does 5G need AI to bring out its use case?

The root cause appears to be a result of this advancement being primarily technology-driven rather than a response to explicit user demand. When 5G was introduced, many consumers were already content with the capabilities of 4G, which adequately supported the main mobile aims: streaming high-definition content on platforms like Netflix, taking video calls on zoom and Teams, or using the numerous apps we all know and love. When 4G is plenty… well, 5G fills a need we haven’t quite got.

The Launch of 5G Without User Demand

The launch of 5G technology by mobile companies was primarily driven by the industry’s desire to create new business opportunities, rather than direct consumer demand. Telco firms saw 5G as a way to revolutionize connectivity with significantly faster speeds, lower latency, and the ability to support a vast number of connected devices, which would enable advancements in areas such as the Internet of Things (IoT), smart cities, and autonomous vehicles. By leading with innovation, these companies aimed to create new markets and revenue streams, anticipating future consumer needs and positioning themselves as leaders in next-generation technology. With 4G, where technology has driven progress, so too have consumers followed.

As of 2024, 5G coverage in the European Union has made significant progress, with 5G networks available to approximately 81% of the population. However, the actual adoption of 5G among mobile users lags behind other regions globally. As of the end of 2023, only around 7.4% of mobile connections in Europe were on 5G networks, a notable increase from 2.5% at the end of 2021, but still relatively low compared to countries like the United States and South Korea, where adoption rates are much higher​ (5G Observatory)​​ (GSMA)​. Whilst connectivity is there, the consumers aren’t.

The Low Latency Advantage of 5G for IoT and Beyond

One of the most significant advantages of 5G technology is its low latency, which opens up many possibilities for applications that require real-time data transmission and response. Unlike 4G, which primarily focused on enhancing data speeds, 5G’s low latency is a game-changer for applications that depend on instantaneous communication. This is particularly crucial for the Internet of Things (IoT), where devices need to communicate with each other in real time to function effectively.

Top 3 examples of 5-G enabled applications:

  • Autonomous Vehicles: These rely on low-latency communication to interact with each other and infrastructure to navigate safely and efficiently.
  • Smart Cities: Real-time data from sensors throughout a city can manage traffic flow, energy use, and public services more effectively.
  • Healthcare: Remote surgeries and telemedicine can benefit from the high reliability and low latency of 5G, enabling doctors to perform procedures and consultations from afar.

These examples demonstrate how 5G’s low latency is essential for the seamless operation of systems that need to process and respond to data almost instantaneously. But is it the case that for 5G to be of value, communities need to wait for the rest of the technology ecosystem to catch up, a process that could take 10-15 years?

The rise of generative AI and the need for fast response times

As generative AI technology evolves, it increasingly enables human-like interactions between AI systems and users. These interactions require rapid response times to be effective, blending natural language processing and real-time data transmission. The latency in these interactions comprises two main components: the processing time required by the AI to generate a response and the time taken to transmit this data back and forth between the user’s device and the AI system.

To illustrate the importance of low latency in 5G, let’s break down the response time in a typical AI interaction:

  1. AI Processing Time: This includes the time taken by the AI to process the user’s input, run it through its algorithms, and generate a response. With advancements in AI, this processing time is continually being reduced but still takes a significant fraction of a second.
  2. Data Transmission Time: This is the time taken for the user’s voice data to be transmitted to the AI server and for the response to be sent back to the user’s device.

Let’s assume an AI system takes about 100 milliseconds (ms) to process a request. In a 4G network, the typical latency ranges from 50 to 100 ms, resulting in a total round trip latency (send and receive) of approximately 100 to 200 ms. Adding the AI processing time, the total response time could range from 200 to 300 ms.

In contrast, a 5G network can reduce latency to around 1 to 10 ms. Thus, the total round-trip latency would be approximately 2 to 20 ms. When combined with the AI processing time, the total response time could range from 102 to 120 ms, significantly improving the responsiveness of the interaction.

This represents a 50-60% improvement or a doubling in the total speed of the connection.

This calculation shows that the total duration of processing and transmission speeds is greatly reduced with 5G, making AI interactions more seamless and human-like.

The critical role of low latency in 5G

The importance of low latency in 5G cannot be overstated. It’s not just about faster data speeds; it’s about enabling real-time communication and interaction across a wide range of applications. For AI-driven applications, particularly those requiring real-time interactions, low latency is essential for delivering a smooth and responsive user experience.

Low latency ensures that data can be transmitted and processed quickly enough to support applications that require immediate feedback. This capability is crucial for:

  • Virtual and Augmented Reality: Enhancing the realism and responsiveness of VR and AR applications.
  • Online Gaming: Providing gamers with a lag-free experience, which is critical for competitive gaming.
  • Financial Transactions: Enabling high-frequency trading and instant transactions without delay.

Is AI, and Generative AI specifically, going to speed up 5Gs journey towards mass adoption? 

While 5G may have initially been perceived as a technology-driven innovation lacking immediate user demand, its low latency capabilities unlock a huge number of applications that were previously impractical or impossible. From enhancing IoT and industrial automation to enabling real-time AI interactions, 5G’s low latency is set to transform how we interact with technology and pave the way for future innovations.

Whilst network providers and Governments have got out ahead of the game to prepare us for a 5G future, and have indeed put the horse before the cart, it does appear that the reigns on this horse are somewhat long. As in life, one can only sell what someone else is willing to buy, and until the demand for low-latency (at scale) exists, it will be hard to see customers choosing 5G faster than they are already doing.