In just a few days, the FIFA World Cup Final will be over and soccer (football, if you must) fans all around the world will go back to being productive members of society. And if you’ve got used to must-see sports on TV nearly every day, what can fill the hole in your schedule? I’d suggest the Tour de France.
Okay, the overlap in World Cup and Le Tour fan bases may not be significant. But, with more than 10 million people showing up roadside to watch the world’s biggest bike race, the 3.5 million that turned up in Brazil for the World Cup four years ago seems nearly pitiful. And where the epitome of technology innovation on the soccer field might be goal-line cameras or new technical fabrics in team uniforms (let’s forget about video assistant refereeing), I’d argue cycling – with $15,000 superbikes, hidden motors and carbon fibre everywhere – should carry a special interest for the tech fans among us.
Oh, and if you’re looking for one more reason to watch, consider all of the things it can tell you about 5G. Things like:
Tech (wireless of bike) is sexy… I’d wager more people follow July’s big bike race for the technology it highlights – lightweight disc brakes, aerodynamically dimpled wheels, increasingly inventive ways to hide doping – than could actually name the race’s top contenders. It mirrors a 5G fascination around the wonders of massive MIMO, network slicing or time-sensitive networking. 5G technology innovations may be nothing more than a means to an end (the services they enable), but they drive engagement and that’s a good thing in and of itself.
…but can’t ensure success. The best bike in the world can’t win a race on its own. Neither can the best-trained rider. Course reconnaissance, team strategy, luck and the support of cheering crowds all play a role. Luck in particular. No operator will admit to luck playing a role in their success. They all need to recognise, however, that 5G success won’t be built upon 3GPP Release 15 and Release 16 features and capabilities. Lots of hard work will be critical, with business decisions and competitive differentiation around partnerships, service innovations and marketing being more important than the standardised 5G technologies available to everyone.
5G isn’t an IoT certainty. When Dimension Data became the Tour’s official technology partner in 2015, we got a big dose of analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) as a part of the fan experience. We got GPS sensors on bikes. We got real time insights. We got deeper analysis of rider performance. We got this all without 5G (even including NB-IoT in that definition). We can imagine a future Tour with 5G-connected bikes and riders. In the meantime, 5G will need to earn its right to play in IoT based on its unique capabilities and a solid understanding of use case requirements: it’s not a given.
Dark horses and favourites. A few days into this year’s race and we already have some surprising results. Fernando Gaviria has won two stages, holding off super-sprinter Peter Sagan. Team BMC, which is currently searching for a sponsor, won the team time trial and has three riders in the top 15. An American is tied for first place. While you can usually count on a handful of contenders to be on the podium at the end of any given stage (much less the end of the race), it’s the unexpected wins that keep things fun. And, with 5G representing a new technology impacting the network core, RAN and device landscape, there’s no shortage of new players vying for unexpected wins against the incumbent wireless suppliers. Watching those dark horses fight for their piece of the 5G pie will be nothing if not exciting.
It’s not about nations. The Tour de France is a race of professional teams, not national teams. That’s easy to forget when you’ve got teams sponsored by the Emirates and Bahrain, not to mention the capital of Kazakhstan (Astana Pro Team). Regardless, it’s not a country-versus-country competition in the same way the World Cup is. Neither is 5G. The first country to 5G won’t automatically win some sort of prize. Instead, the real winners will be the businesses which figure out how to tap global 5G scale to build success across national borders.
Of course, if there’s one thing that’s nice about events like the World Cup or Olympics where countries compete against one another, it’s that we all know who the competitors are. So, if you have a hard time getting to grips with Tour de France teams like Sunweb, Bora-Hansgrohe, Direct Energie or Katusha-Alpecin, I have good news: there’s a lesson here too.
For a professional cycling team, casting a wide sponsorship net is a necessity: it takes a lot of money to keep everyone fed, transported and trained. The same holds for 5G. If 5G does nothing more than touch the same set of industries and customers as 4G, it should be considered a failure. Executing on the promise of 5G as a foundational, transformational communications technology will mean touching a broad set of industries and interests. It will mean seamlessly integrating into various use cases and everyday life. That’s a lot to ask, sure. But the stakes are high, and isn’t that why people watch races (to a metaphorical or physical finish line) so closely?
– Peter Jarich, head of GSMA Intelligence
The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.