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Consumers apathetic about 5G. Are operators promoting the wrong message?

A recent survey of US consumers reveals that most do not really care about the upcoming wireless revolution that will be enabled by 5G, and have no idea that the technology is around the corner. The findings suggest that in the scramble to deploy this potentially exciting technology, operators may have lost sight of what their customers want, and they have obvious implications for UK and European operators too.

The research, performed by telco equipment reseller Repeater Store, found that 59 per cent respondents are unaware that 5G is soon to be introduced, while 28.1 per cent said they were not clear at all of 5G’s benefits, 27.5 per cent were “somewhat clear’, with only 23.2 per cent saying they “sort of understood” the benefits.

Importantly, in terms of excitement, 18.5 per cent “could not care less” about 5G and 19.6 per cent are not excited, suggesting that the focus on increased speeds that the industry has been promoting to date, is not resonating with the public.

Indeed, while in most cases 4G connection is more than sufficient for most mobile activities and applications, 20 per cent of survey respondents said that they still had unreliable 4G coverage at home or work, which could suggest why consumers are nonplussed, preferring reliable 4G LTE coverage before even considering upgrading to a new technology. Quite simply, why should they care? And, if they don’t, why are operators bothering to spend time on this rather than investing all of their energies into areas for which there are interested partners and customers, such as B2B and IoT.

On top of that, consumers in the US and the UK are not overly happy with their mobile service to start with. According to the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index the industry received a cumulative score of just 74 out of 100, with a sense that the industry is still too focused on profits, rather than on providing its customers with a reliable and affordable service.

In the UK, meanwhile, Vodafone has well-known challenges with customer satisfaction, and was rated the worst mobile phone provider in Which?’s annual mobile customer satisfaction survey for the seventh year running. The survey of 3,683 consumers found that Vodafone, EE, O2 and Three customer satisfaction ranged from ‘average’ to ‘disappointing’. The annual survey has also repeatedly seen MVNOs beating the big four providers on a regular basis. 

So it’s clear that consumers care more about receiving a reliable and affordable service now, than the same old marketing spiel regarding yet another technology in 5G. Yes, 5G could connect phones at speeds 25–50 per cent faster than LTE, with less latency and better connectivity, but for now that knowledge does not excite consumers.

Of course, they may not be aware of the pressure being placed on networks, however, even if they are, they may rightly consider this to be the operators’ problem rather than the consumers. At the same time, the use cases that are attractive for 5G – critical IoT, for example, are remote and disconnected from the public. They are B2B services and have no interest to consumers. 5G is both poorly understood and largely irrelevant to their needs. In this context, simply talking about unproven benefits is pointless – and diverts attention from the areas in which operators should be focusing.

So, the results are unsurprising. What is surprising is that operators probably already know this – yet the hype continues unabated. They need to spend time and resources where it matters. For example, besides IoT and other B2B cases, one application focus that consumers might easily understand is that of improved fixed wireless access enabled by 5G. However, to date operators seem to have fallen into the trap of blindly quoting faster network speeds in their attempts to promote 5G.

Perhaps a better focus on explaining the benefits of 5G over 4G (rather than simply speed), and its potential to create new use cases, might serve operators better and give consumers something to get more excited about. At the same time, they should make sure their 4G investments deliver. Of course, it may simply be that operators are still not clear themselves about the 5G messages they want to promote.

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