The desire for speed is what has driven humans to aim for higher potential. In the current scenario, this desire for speed combined with the availability of infinite storage is taking the tech world by storm. In a nutshell, the world wants to have all information in the least possible time in the easiest available format. If you are looking at the enabling device to fulfil these expectations, it’s the one you are holding in your hand - the mobile phone. The technology that will enable the mobile phone to be armed with the invincibility of infinite data at blazing speeds in a real-time environment is 5G.
It might be a little hard to believe, but mobile phones have been with us in one form or another since the 1970s; that’s when the first generation (or 1G) of mobile connectivity standards were developed. It took almost two decades before the second generation (2G) standards were ready and we could send text messages and experiment with a rudimentary mobile web. By 4G, which has been readily available for several years in much of the developed world, mobile Internet speeds were comparable with home broadband, but a major leap forward is coming soon, thanks to 5G.
Advantages of 5G
A technological innovation is meaningful only when it improves lives - it’s this social value that ultimately makes it soar higher and deliver benefits in the long run. In fact, 5G will go beyond mobile broadband and positively impact disruptive technologies such as robotics, self-driving cars and smart cities. It will foster innovation in agriculture, health care and education by highly enhancing the mobile user experience through cloud-based virtual reality, which will allow emerging and developed markets to deliver quality health care to people living in remote areas.
5G will also allow ultra high definition video availability wherever you go and take it even further in helping open new revenue streams for telecom companies and content service providers. It will enhance the business value chain and bolster the country’s IT market and economy in the long run. It will allow students from deprived areas connect with the world’s best teachers through HD video and VR, which is a challenge in today’s 4G networks. It will help provide a seamless learning experience, negating the distance and cost challenges faced in conventional systems.
5G will help turn ambulances into mobile clinics wherein equipment could be operated through VR and patients could be thoroughly examined. The stability that the 5G communication protocol provides is what will help make these procedures perform as desired. This will invariably help improve the quality of health care received by millions worldwide and help change the traditional approach that is cluttered with inefficiencies of cost and technology limitations. Wearable devices connected via 5G will help medical professionals effectively screen and diagnose patients remotely and even allow surgeons to perform minor surgeries anywhere as the technology matures with time and experience.
5G will be a key enabler for the successful implementation of smart cities. Rather than its speed advantage - which most of us believe will be the primary reason for its success - it will be 5G’s capability of providing higher coverage density (50 to 100 times more) and high support to connected devices that will provide a ready mix of speed, capacity, efficiency and throughput to make it a game changer of sorts. According to the global commission on economy and climate, smart cities have the potential to save the world economy as much as $22 trillion by 2050 and 5G will be a key enabler in making it happen.
With more than 3 billion devices connected by the end of 2018, 5G’s collaboration with technologies such as RFID, ethernet Wi-Fi and 5G enabled WANs coupled with machine learning, artificial intelligence and data analytics will help provide huge opportunities in predictive analytics that have the potential to save precious lives and resources in case of natural as well as manmade disasters.
Challenges to 5G
The universal acceptance of 5G will ultimately rely on the existence of a robust ICT infrastructure. It invariably requires existing service providers to invest a sizeable amount of resources in getting the desired infrastructure in place, which includes the base stations, antennas and most importantly the fiber optic network cabling infrastructure as the technology isn’t an upgrade over 4G but a complete overhaul. The main issue with the 5G rollout is optical fiber connectivity, which is critical for supporting 5G technology. Less than 20 per cent of our mobile towers are optical fiber connected and we have a long way to go to be 100 per cent 5G ready.
There is also a dire need to bring in clarity on the revenue models and policies on managing data and content from the government and regulatory bodies, which needs to come at a rapid pace. Going further, there’s also a liability hurdle due to advanced automated disruptive technologies such as driverless cars and remote health care that can act as roadblocks, thereby delaying the implementation by a sizeable amount of time.
Last but not the least, the biggest single challenge is information security. A large number of connected devices with virtualisation and edge computing makes this network highly prone to cyberattacks, thereby increasing network vulnerability and driving up implementation time and cost. As 5G paves the way for interconnectedness, it will also increase ambiguity and therefore result in more chaos if the systems are not built to standards and standard operating practices. Therefore, the adoption of 5G will require substantial investments in downstream innovation and security than previous generations of communications systems. As per industry estimates, more than $250 billion investment in equipment and infrastructure for 5G will be required over the next 10 years.
How prepared is India?
India is neither alone nor the first in Asia to foster 5G dreams. South Korea is one of the prime 5G technology players in Asia and much ahead in the race. India is in talks with countries such as South Korea, seeking expertise in the sector. Despite the rush, India is not planning to be largely import-dependent; the government has given budgetary support to DoT for setting up indigenous 5G testbeds in IITs to pursue research in the technology.
The Broadband India Forum (BIF) has set up a 5G committee to push the momentum on the rollout of 5G trials with key industry players. The 5G committee aims to help execute the mission of the government’s high-level forum on 5G and champion large-scale trials across verticals. Spectrum, infrastructure policies, investment and other essential elements required to make India a front-runner in 5G deployment and use will be formulated by the committee, which has representatives from the government and industry. The first set of trials are likely to be complete by mid-2019, and well ahead of the original deadline of 2020.
Also called the third industrial revolution, digital revolution is the change from analogue, mechanical and electronic technology to digital technology in the era of digital electronic equipments that started in the 1980s and is continuing. What’s changed for the better is the widespread diffusion of telecom and computer technology that is creating new ways of working and socialising as well as challenging and even destroying many others.
5G’s potential as a positive disruptor in the digital revolution is enormous thanks to its low latency capabilities. Latency is nothing but the delay to travel across the network, and with latency levels of 1 to 10 milliseconds, 5G provides a 10-fold improvement over 4G, thereby enabling real-time communication and literally no delay - a primary prerequisite for seamless digital communication.
There’s no doubt that sooner or later 5G will deliver economic value to telcos, industry stakeholders and consumers. It will also help improve the efficiency of spectrum use by 10 times and network capacity by at least 20-30 times, thereby allowing consumers experience better services at lower costs as the technology matures with time and experience. Ensuring the quality of services and a higher penetration of data-led services are going to be the key for India. At present, India’s data penetration is lower than many Latin American countries and even some African nations. Focusing on just supply-side solutions such as 5G may not be enough going ahead and building a quality world-class infrastructure will be the right way to address the challenge as well as reap the benefits of 5G for the country’s betterment.
(Ninad M. Desai is consulting specialist - ICT Network Infrastructure & Outside Plant Design. The views expressed here are personal.)