A hand holding a holographic image of a city at night, with 5G written above it and various icons floating around it.

5G paves the way for the era of total connectivity

  • 5G brings unprecedented speed
  • SEAT unveils the 5G-connected car
  • Powering the virtual world of tomorrow
  • Providing connectivity to smart cities and connected factories
  • The future of medicine lies in fast data transfer
  • What about the dangers associated with 5G?
  • Clearing the way for 6G research
  • The dawning of a new age of total connectivity

The evolution of mobile phone networks has deeply transformed people’s lives. From 1G analogue voice calling in the 1980s to the 4G-connected devices of the 2010s, technology has come a long way to enable us to instantly hail an Uber, stream video, or comment on social media using nothing but our phones. But the wheel of progress moves relentlessly. Many countries are already working on deploying the fifth generation of wireless technology, known as 5G, that offers unprecedented internet speed. And by 2030, the 5G market is set to reach $700 billion. These investments will usher in a new era of total connectivity that’ll define our economies and societies for years to come.

An infographic showing the expected size of the 5G market by 2030 and the main drivers of growth.
The 5G market is expected to reach $700 billion by 2030, fuelled by mobile services, fixed wireless services, and narrow-band IoT.

Driverless cars, for instance, will rely on super-speedy 5G technology to communicate with the cloud, road infrastructure, and other vehicles. Connected factories and smart cities will be able to manage ever larger amounts of data collected by IoT sensors deployed in multiple locations. And doctors will be able to serve more patients without leaving the office, as fast video streaming will make telemedicine even more popular. Users of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) tools will benefit, too. Real-time rendering of holograms could move from the realm of sci-fi into everyday use if companies perfect their technologies in time. And far from being content with the benefits of 5G, companies are already working on the 6th generation of wireless technologies, in which “biology meets AI”.

5G brings unprecedented speed

Compared to previous generations of mobile networks, 5G will be able to transfer a higher volume of data in less time and with fewer interruptions. Tech companies promise that while 4G can reach a theoretical maximum of 100 megabits per second (Mbps), 5G could be a hundred times faster, topping out at 10 gigabits per second (Gbps). The Consumer Technology Association, a US-based standards and trade organisation, explains that with 3G, downloading a two-hour movie would take 26 hours, while 4G would get the job done in 6 minutes. But at speeds of 10 Gbps, 5G could allow us to download a full movie in just 3.6 seconds.

A bar graph showing the download speed for a 2-hour movie on 3G, 4G, and 5G networks.
Downloading a 2-hour movie takes 26 hours on a 3G network, six minutes on a 4G network, and 3.6 seconds on a 5G network.

However, creating infrastructure that enables such performance is neither easy nor cheap. In fact, the rollout of 5G networks will require as much as $2.7 trillion in investments by the end of 2020, out of which $1 trillion will be spent on infrastructure upgrades, according to a recent report by Greensill. Mobile operators will channel these investments into building a network of cell sites that send encoded data through radio waves. Each site will have to be connected to a network, either through a wired or wireless connection, and 5G will be able to transmit data using several bands of radio spectrum.

The low-band, sub 1 GHz spectrum offers great coverage and penetration, but peak data speeds can’t go over 100Mbps. The mid-band spectrum enables faster coverage with maximum speed of up to 1 Gbps. But what most people think of when they talk about 5G is actually the high-band spectrum that offers speeds of up to 10Gbps. The major drawback of this high frequency, also known as ‘millimetre wave’ network, or mmWave, is that it transfers data at short distances and is susceptible to adverse weather conditions and atmospheric interference. Operators will thus have to build a vast network of base stations, signal repeaters, and transmitters, which is why it will be costly to build 5G infrastructure. But once it’s ready, the new mobile network will prove its worth and enable various industries to reach new heights.

SEAT unveils the 5G-connected car

5G will be critical for autonomous vehicles, as it will enable them to communicate with each other, as well as with road infrastructure, carmakers, drivers, and road authorities. Imagine that you’re driving your autonomous car on the highway, when it receives an alert that there’s been an accident a few kilometres ahead. The car would notify you about the obstacle and slow down, preventing another collision and saving lives. And self-driving vehicles track various types of information, potentially producing as much data as 3,000 smartphones. That’s why the instant and uninterrupted transfer of data that only 5G can provide is so critical for the car industry.

In February 2019, the Spanish automaker SEAT unveiled Europe’s first 5G-connected concept car, called Minimo. It’s a fully electric, two-seat vehicle that’s imagined as a mobility platform for the future of smart cities. The company’s CEO, Luca de Meo, explains that “with the Google Assistant on Android Auto, users can keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel while using their voice to stay connected, easily get answers, manage tasks and control media”. He adds that the car industry needs to be creative in using the opportunities provided by fifth generation mobile networks. In his opinion, “connecting a car with a passenger’s mobile phone, or external infrastructure or retailers could lead to billions of possible transactions”.

To get there, however, manufacturers have to outline clear benefits to customers. Autonomous and connected cars should, for example, be able to prevent accidents or ‘see’ around the corner. Once that happens, the use of 5G will increase further, helping telecoms to justify the investment in new technologies.

Powering the virtual world of tomorrow

AR and VR products could also benefit from 5G connectivity. For instance, the tech firm ThirdEye developed mixed reality (MR) glasses called X2 that currently need to have an existing hotspot to work without latency. But by the end of 2019, the company plans to embed a cellular chip into the glasses that can connect to a 5G network, eliminating the need for a hotspot. These glasses will have multiple real-world applications. For instance, medical professionals will be able to upgrade telemedicine by sharing what they see in real time and receiving real-time instructions from other experts. Furthermore, emergency response teams will be able to remotely survey disaster areas by connecting the glasses to drones and maps, while visually impaired people will also benefit from X2, as it can “magnify what a user sees, or adjust color displays for people with colorblindness”. What’s more, the X2 also features cameras and light and heat sensors, as well as 3D scanning capabilities, allowing it to accurately scan and display 3D models.

The computer vision company Evercoast is betting its future on 5G as well. It’s working on a system that’s able to create personalised holographic content. Thanks to 16 high-definition cameras, 3D scanning, and telepresence, the user can create an accurate holographic model of their body that can be seen on glass displays or through a VR headset. Since creating holograms requires a lot of rendering power and produces vast amounts of data, the rendering process can take hours, or even days. But with 5G, it could be done within seconds. In the future, retailers could implement this tech into their stores as virtual fitting rooms for shoppers, while consumers could use it to see how the clothing items they’d like to buy from an online store actually fit on their body.

Providing connectivity to smart cities and connected factories

And on a society-wide level, 5G is set to play a critical role in handling massive datasets produced by IoT sensors and devices deployed in smart cities and connected factories. Mobile networks will move data to cloud-based AI programs for almost real-time analysis and feedback. This will allow operators to more efficiently control robots deployed in the field or in factories, as well as to coordinate manufacturing operations across different regions. And improved connectivity will enable cities to do more with the same budget. For instance, 5G-connected streetlights could enable fast processing of data created by video cameras or gunshot sensors, enabling law enforcement units to rapidly react in case of an incident.

But 5G technology can do much more for public safety. Through a method called network slicing, which is the creation of “multiple virtual networks on top of a common shared physical infrastructure”, allowing first responders to prioritise the data they’re receiving from IoT devices, such as cameras, drones, smoke detectors, and various other security infrastructure, based on the situation at hand. Police units will also be able to allocate more of their wireless capacity on selected video streams from cameras that monitor a specific event. Kevin Curran, a cybersecurity expert, says that “The aim is to have dynamic, customizable virtual networks that can meet the specific needs of services, applications and operators. Network slicing ultimately creates independent logical network functions specifically for a use case.” Additionally, network slicing will enhance security and lower vulnerability to hacking, because if a cyber-attack breaches one ‘slice’ of the network, it won’t be able to spread to the next one.

The future of medicine lies in fast data transfer

Better connectivity can also transform the way doctors prevent, diagnose, and treat medical conditions. To that end, various devices and sensors that track patients’ health are crucial, and they create a global IoT in healthcare market that will be worth $158 billion by 2022. These devices require a stable and fast internet connection to perform key functions and transfer medical data. As Dr Joseph Kvedar, the vice president of connected health at Partners HealthCare, says, “If you put in an Amazon order and it doesn’t happen, the world doesn’t stop. But if it’s your pacemaker, that’s a different matter.”

Lightning-fast 5G networks will also facilitate the growth of telemedicine. Patients will be able to stream high-resolution video and reach specialists that might be unavailable for face-to-face meetings. And doctors will find it easier to deal with non-urgent patients from around the world through video calls, instead of asking them to come to a hospital. Residents in rural areas will especially benefit from this. Even ambulances will be able to move faster thanks to faster internet. Mike Zeto, the general manager of the smart cities unit at the telco giant AT&T, explains that “A 5G-connected ambulance can move freely through a city by being connected to a network communicating with traffic signals, and can communicate with doctors at the hospital’s trauma center en route.”

What about the dangers associated with 5G?

The deployment of 5G capabilities is happening across major markets, such as the US, China, South Korea, Japan, and the EU. But even according to the best estimates, that job won’t be done until around 2025. Until then, carriers and governments have a number of challenges to solve. For instance, many people worry that cellular signals may cause cancer, but there hasn’t been a conclusive study that proves or disproves that assumption. And as 5G requires ten times more antennas than 4G to cover the same area, more studies need to be conducted to ensure the tech doesn’t affect human health.

Another concern is cybersecurity, as using 5G networks to track people or eavesdrop on live phone calls is a real possibility. The US and China, for instance, are embroiled in a trade dispute that’s tied to the issue of the security of 5G equipment produced by the tech giant Huawei. And since new mobile networks will support not only phones but smart infrastructure as well, it’s evident that protecting user data is critical.

Clearing the way for 6G research

And while governments and companies are currently focusing on 5G, work on 6G networks is already under way. The US Federal Communications Commission is taking the first steps to open up the terahertz wave spectrum, frequencies higher than those used by 5G, as that might “expedite the deployment of new services”. Also, the University of Oulu in Finland is researching materials, software, and antennas that could be used to launch 6G, while companies such as Samsung and LG are also running research projects in this field.

It’s hard to imagine the capabilities of such a network when we’re yet to use 5G, but Marcus Weldon from the industrial research firm Nokia Bell Labs says that 6G will be a “sixth sense experience for humans and machines”. It’ll be faster and more powerful, with non-existent latency. But there are many technical challenges to solve, such as how to amplify terahertz waves that transfer data at an extremely short distance of around ten metres. And if telecom companies, regulators, and manufacturers find ways to address 5G’s pitfalls and continuously improve the speed and capacity of this network, we might not even need to invest billions of dollars in thousands of new 6G cell towers.

The dawning of a new age of total connectivity

Science has changed our lives beyond recognition in the last few decades. A key part of this journey was mobile network technology that continuously evolves and provides us with ubiquitous internet access. The next stage of this evolution is 5G tech that promises unprecedented connectivity and internet speed. More than that, fifth generation connectivity will power self-driving cars, smart cities, and connected factories, turning them into the pillars of modern economic and social systems. Total connectivity is well upon us, and we’re witnessing the beginning of that transformation.

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