I just spent a week at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, where virtually all of the conversation was focussed on 5G. 100,000 delegates had come from 200 countries and much of the talk around the corridors was on what 5G’s ‘killer app’ might be once it begins to reach the mainstream later this year.

It is a reasonable question, but one that I think misses the point because 5G will not have a single ‘killer app’ – it is much bigger than that. Just how much bigger we will start to learn when we put the technology into the hands of customers because that is when the 5G innovation floodgates will open.

The naming convention with 5G might be familiar but the experience (and the implications) will be anything but because 5G’s next-level speed, capacity, reliability and latency will change everything. To get your head around why 5G is so different it is useful to have a sense for how networks have evolved over the last few decades.

The first-generation – 1G – in the ’80s was basic voice on an analogue network. It was not always reliable and the 10Kbps transfer speeds were pretty sedate by today’s standards, but that did not stop it from taking off. 2G came next where talk was combined with text messaging. 3G linked wireless connectivity with digital networks and suddenly the then-miracle of being able to access the internet on your mobile phone became possible. 4G then took it a step further with higher speeds, lower latency and the ability to watch video on the go.

When you look at that journey from 1G to 4G you quickly realise the main game was about speed. Of course, 5G delivers powerful speed (potentially 10 times more than 4G) but 5G is so much more than just faster speeds. 5G’s incredible advances in capacity (important, because current networks will not be able to keep up as the demand for connectivity goes through the roof), reliability and latency are revolutionary on their own – but when you combine them with advances in a host of other new technologies (the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, virtual and augment reality, robotics, cloud, edge computing and software-defined networks) you quickly realise this is a paradigm shift and much, much more than a faster smartphone.

As I saw at MWC, so much work is underway right now to bring a 5G future to life:

  • Work to create a connected, seamless experience across multiple device types and settings, from the home to the roads to the workplace to world of entertainment and learning.
  • Work to build transport and supply chain systems that are managed and synchronised to the real time movement of vehicles and passengers.
  • Work to use sensors to gather geographically-precise data in real time to better monitor livestock and crops based on exact and local weather patterns, soil moisture and nutrients.
  • Work to build fleets of drones that could be used for deliveries, searches, rescues or to provide high-quality live video for news or surveillance.
  • Work to use virtual or augmented reality to create a next-generation, live-time experience for sports fans or to bring remote telemedicine to life. In this I admit there were times at MWC when it seemed I was the only one not wearing a VR headset!
  • Work to automate manufacturing and supply chain management and use AI to collect and process data and robotics to perform repetitive tasks and drive new efficiencies and productivity.

What is just as relevant in any conversation about 5G though is that there are many uses we have not yet imagined. That is actually one of the most exciting parts, because if one thing has characterised the convergence between technology and telecommunications, it is that time and again we have been surprised by the innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurialism that it stimulates.

There is no doubt 5G – closely coupled with the other technologies reaching maturity at the same time – will take that to a new level, and that is why I cannot wait to get more 5G devices into customers hands.

Through all of this, networks remain absolutely central and it was great to visit MWC knowing Telstra is 5G-ready and in many ways leading the world. We already have more than 200 5G towers operational across Australia. We have also developed deep domain expertise and first mover advantage.

As a network operator, what is exciting for us in planning and building a 5G-enabled network is that we know the future will be super-connected, super-intelligent and super disruptive to every business model. As a retail provider, our job is to stay at the cutting edge of that so that our customers can too.

Perhaps my biggest takeaway from MWC was that we are nowhere near knowing all the possibilities 5G will create but we do know they are coming. How? Because we saw it with every previous generation of wireless network. It is easy to argue 2G’s ‘killer app’ was text messaging, 3G’s internet connectivity, and on 4G the most important use case was probably video, which went from nothing on earlier generations of wireless networks to making up the majority of traffic on 4G.

Nobody knows for sure how this will play out with 5G, but we do know that sooner or later (and in many different ways), innovators and entrepreneurs will find a way to tie together extremely high speeds, high bandwidth, ultra-low latency, and leverage that into unanticipated new applications, services and capabilities.

Unlike the Gs 1-4, 5G will not have a single ‘killer app’ – it is too big, and too transformative for that – but it will completely transform the role of technology and telecommunications in the world, and unleash a new wave of innovation once we have put it into the hands of customers – that truly does fire the imagination.