Fifth-generation wireless mobile telecommunications networks are on the horizon. Otherwise known as 5G, and said to be thousands of times faster than 3G and 4G, these new networks are growing and gathering like clouds in the sky, and will inevitably reign supreme over the data landscape.
GSMA, a global mobile communications industry association, says 5G networks will be with us in the next three years, and could account for about 1.4 billion connections by 2025.
These might sound like conservative estimates, given the currently frenetic telecommunications infrastructure-building activity, but the GSMA represents 800 mobile network operators and 300 companies worldwide, so their estimates are likely to be realistic.
Different cities and regions are moving at different speeds but it’s inevitable that 5G will reach into your life at some point in the next year or two.
And if you’ve travelled to parts of the world where 5G is already being extensively trialled, you’ve probably already been covered by a superfast 5G cloud.
1. 5G wants to be with you everywhere
David Christopher, chief marketing officer, AT&T Entertainment Group, says: “Our 5G Evolution in Austin gives our customers a taste of the future.
“With 5G Evolution from AT&T you don’t have to wait to experience endless entertainment possibilities on the next generation network when you have the latest devices.”
In China, which is probably slightly ahead in terms of 5G adoption, telcos are building what is thought to be the world’s largest 5G network in terms of the number of people it covers.
Major Chinese internet companies are said to be readying a range of advanced consumer services based on 4K and 8K video.
Meanwhile, in Europe, data networks giant Ericsson has teamed up with Estonian telco Telia and chipmaker Intel to demonstrate a 5G network for shipping.
There are many other examples, but in any case, 5G is inevitable. Inevitable because that’s the way progress is – technology always moves forward toward us.
But also inevitable because the current networks – whether it’s 3G or the much faster 4G – simply cannot cope with the massive increase in the volume of data from even the existing mobile devices of today.
2. The power of 5G is phenomenal
The speeds and bandwidths of 3G, 4G and 5G are as follows:
3G : 2 megabits per second
4G : 200 megabits per second
5G : 1,000 megabits per second
This is a general guideline – and is probably very limited in ambition – and anyway, it all depends on the hardware used and the way it’s implemented.
But global standards for 5G are being drawn up by the United Nations agency International Telecommunications Union.
The IMT 2020 standard for 5G technologies has stipulated that the universal specification will support many features, including the following:
Support at least 1 million devices per square kilometre;
Have no more than 1 millisecond latency; and provide a peak download rate of up to 20 gigabits per second.
At the moment, these features are described as a “vision” more than a reality, but whatever the network’s eventual speed and bandwidth capacity, even the number of existing devices may clog up the system.
And within a year or two not only will these existing devices be sending and requiring the processing of much more data – because of new augmented and virtual reality apps and even more memory-hungry games – there will be many more entirely new devices jostling to get online.
At the moment, we’re mostly talking about smartphones, tablets, and laptops. But soon, they will be joined by a variety of new computing devices – some of which never had any computing or connectivity before.
3. 5G will enable supercars
One of the most demanding categories of new devices will be road-going vehicles. It may seem strange to call cars “devices” but they are becoming more like computers every day.
“Xperia on wheels,” as one Sony executive put it, referring to the Japanese electronics giant’s Xperia smartphones and the possibility of cars becoming just like smartphones on wheels.
Sony’s not the only company which thinks like this – in fact, it’s just the latest. Google, Apple and many other tech companies have already gone quite far down that road.
Google’s autonomous car technology is not only central to its own bubble car, it’s also integrated into some models made by Fiat Chrysler, one of the world’s largest auto manufacturers.
And while Apple has yet to build autonomous driving technology, it’s already part of many vehicle dashboards in the form of CarPlay.
Neither Apple nor Google are by any means the only companies adding computer technology to cars – they are, in fact, relative newbies.
Companies like Harman have been computerising cars for a long time. And, interestingly, Samsung recently bought Harman to give itself access to the automotive market.
Cars are increasingly being connected to the internet, and the autonomous features the automakers keep integrating into them will require fast, secure and high-capacity data connections.
Key pieces of hardware will include computing devices like the one released by Nvidia in the past few days.
The Nvidia Drive PX Pegasus is a computing platform which will make artificially intelligent, self-driving taxis – or “robotaxis” – a reality, says the company.
According to Nvidia, the Pegasus is capable of 320 trillion operations a second, it has 10 gigabyte Ethernet connectors, and its combined memory bandwidth exceeds 1 terabyte a second.
Companies such as Bosch are already building advanced driver assistance systems – for today’s human-driven cars – which will accommodate the Nvidia Drive platform even before full autonomy arrives.
“A self-driving car generates huge quantities of data – as much as one gigabyte a second,” says Dirk Hoheisel, the Bosch board member responsible for autonomous vehicles.
“Processing such huge quantities of data calls for more than classic control units. Instead, a car equipped with artificial intelligence also needs a brain.”
The inherent dangers of a moving car means that all the critical operations will be processed on what is effectively the edge device – the computer inside the car.
But vehicles will still require an internet connection as good as 5G for certain other tasks –such as some aspects of mapping and localisation or object detection and recognition.
4. 5G is already on the edge
What may become helpful to cars and many other devices is the trend of micro data centres popping up closer and closer to the user.
Hyperlocal data centres, as some call them, are being constructed in many places across the US – from busy urban areas such as New York, to sparsely populated areas in the rural regions.
This spreading out of infrastructure would enable anyone, anywhere to enjoy the same connectivity as everyone else.
The phrase “out of range” may go out of use. But that’s not to suggest 5G is easy to construct or that it will bring about some sort of utopia.
As Huawei, one of the most active companies in the 5G infrastructure market, says in a white paper: “5G networks face significant design challenges to simultaneously meet all of service requirements of the individual user and enterprise.”
Huawei is working on a huge variety of 5G projects around the world, including one in India, where it will be one of the first to roll out 5G phones.
And while smartphones and cars are the most eye-catching devices to mention in this context, other connected gadgets such things as smart glasses may become increasingly widely used, especially in the enterprise space.
In the home, previously isolated household appliances such as washing machines, fridges and vacuum cleaners may be installed with internet connections to make them easier to maintain or upgrade.
Largely useless robots may wander round people’s homes doing nothing but misunderstanding everything their users say, but still needing an internet connection to deliver a completely irrelevant reply.
The so-called smart home speakers – such as the Amazon Echo, the Google Home, and the Apple HomePod – are already stumbling through many such inane conversations.
5. 5G will be available in your wardrobe
It’s a widely expected that the number and variety of “things” on the internet of things will increase beyond what current networks can cope with – maybe even 5G can cope with.
Wearables is another new and interesting area that will need more network capacity. Not only are we talking about smartwatches and glasses, we’re also talking about connected clothes.
Google has teamed up with jeans giant Levi’s to produce a range of clothes under a brand it calls Jacquard, after early loom builders of the first Industrial Revolution back in the 1800s.
These new Jacquard clothes have in-built connectivity which can understand touches and gestures and, according to Google, can be used to access the internet.
As it says on the website: “The Jacquard platform offers an entirely new experience. Clothing can now understand various touch gestures, activate digital services, and respond with light and haptic feedback.”
So, with even the fleas on your jacket going online, it becomes imperative to know as much about 5G as possible right now to prepare for the oncoming data storm which is looming ever-larger on the horizon.
Another technological issue that is perhaps most pressing is the energy requirement. With greater computing ability, devices usually require more battery life, and, therefore, more power from the grid.
As time goes on, devices which use the least power will have an advantage over others, and companies have realised this.
Apple, for example, is said to looking at using its own chips in its future smartphones rather than other companies’ because its own chips are capable of processing more data using less energy.
For smart cities, which may have literally millions of chips and sensors located all around the urban landscape, a tiny fraction of a per cent reduction in energy consumption can result of millions of dollars being saved.
Cities could also see smaller cell towers crop up here and there, offering smaller networks connected to 5G, although most expert observers do not think Wi-Fi will be replaced any time soon.
As well as the near-instantaneous speeds and copious bandwidth which 5G could provide, the quality of the connections are also expected to improve dramatically, making the use of devices for work much more feasible.
It may no longer be a case of bring your own device to work, but simply a case of connecting to 5G, and working from home more and more, because there may no longer be any time lag or bandwidth issues that create an artificial barrier between the office and its employees.