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A technology that can change the world.

A few months ago, the world was flabbergasted at the fact that US President Donald Trump fabricated a lie about Chinese tech giant Huawei being spies for the Chinese Government. Then, they imposed a trade ban on them that made the rest of the world shout injustice from the rooftops.

There were a number of rumors circulating about the true nature of the ban. Some say it is because the US is weary of China’s ambitions to be the biggest tech producer in the world by 2025. This would lead to significant job losses in the US.

However, it may have more to do with Huawei’s work in 5G technology and the capabilities that the technology has of changing the world.

Difficult times.

An article that I recently read points out that it is not an easy time to be an internationalist, to seek global solutions to global problems amid what feels like one of history’s periodic inclinations toward divisiveness.

The article adds that, yet, ironically, we’re on the verge of a new age of interconnectedness, when the daily lives of people across the planet will be more closely intertwined than ever. Advances in technology will usher in the age of fifth generation, or 5G, telecommunications. And, if past is prologue, this technological evolution will lead to dramatic societal changes

The first generation of mobile communications, with brick-sized phones, brought just a handful of users expensive and often unreliable analogue voice calling. The second generation introduced digital voice service that was less likely to be dropped, available to many more people and ultimately cheaper to use. 3G ushered in the mobile internet, mobile computing, and the proliferation of apps. 4G (often called LTE) made possible all we have come to expect of mobile broadband: streaming video and audio; instantaneous ride hailing; the explosion of social media.

We take all this connectivity for granted, but the engineering inside the device in your bag or pocket today would have seemed impossible less than 20 years ago.

Abundant thinking.

So, where will 5G take us?

The article pointed out that  we need to think about a world in which not just people but all things are connected: cars to the roads they are on; doctors to the personal medical devices of their patients; augmented reality available to help people shop and learn and explore wherever they are. This requires a massive increase in the level of connectivity.

5G is the technological answer, making possible billions of new connections, and making those connections secure and instantaneous. 5G will impact every industry – autos, healthcare, manufacturing and distribution, emergency services, just to name a few. And 5G is purposely designed so that these industries can take advantage of cellular connectivity in ways that wouldn’t have been possible before, and to scale upwards as use of 5G expands.

The article adds that generational change in mobile communications doesn’t just appear overnight. It requires significant effort in research and development and the resources necessary to support that effort. Work on 4G took nearly a decade and the challenges were not easy. Consider one of tens of thousands of problems that needed to be solved as described by an engineer at Qualcomm, where much of this technology was invented:

“When the signal leaves the base station, it can undergo a loss of up to 130 decibels before it reaches your mobile phone. To put that loss into perspective, if you consider the transmitted signal power to be roughly the size of the Earth, then the received signal power would be equivalent to the size of a tiny bacteria.”

The article adds that this is a tremendous loss of power, and it requires some pretty impressive engineering to compensate for the effect of the loss on the words, pictures, and other data we send and receive across the airwaves in a transparent, seamless and instantaneous way.

We’re not alone.

The article points out that we weren’t alone. The international engineering co-operation that goes into development of a telecom standard illustrates how much can be achieved when disparate national, commercial and scientific parties work together for the common good.

Like 3G and 4G, 5G is the responsibility of the standards-setting organisation 3GPP, where the handful of companies that invent technologies come together with many, many more companies who will develop products that implement those technologies.

Think about this process for a moment: engineers from rival inventing companies, rival product makers, rival wireless network operators, all from different countries and continents, discussing, testing, striving to perfect tens of thousands of different technical solutions that ultimately make up a standard like 5G.

The article adds that they judge each technical solution using a merit-based, consensus-building approach. This process has been at the foundation of a technological revolution that spawned myriad new industries, millions of new jobs and well over a $1 trillion in economic growth.

It’s the fusion of commercial self-interest with the recognition that some problems are best solved by working together. And it’s not a bad model of human behaviour if we are to meet the World Economic Forum’s goal this year to address the problems of “a fractured world”.

Imminent benefits.

The article points out that the benefits and advantages of 5G technology are expected to be available sometime in 2019. We believe 5G will change the world even more profoundly than 3G and 4G; that it will be as revolutionary as electricity or the automobile, benefitting entire economies and entire societies.

Developing nations have rivalled or surpassed their industrialised counterparts in benefiting from the deployment of mobile technology, and there’s every reason to think 5G will have an even bigger levelling effect than its predecessors.

The article adds that economists estimate the global economic impact of 5G in new goods and services will reach $12 trillion by 2035 as 5G moves mobile technology from connecting people to people and information, towards connecting people to everything.

Unapparent benefits.

The article points out that many of the benefits probably aren’t yet apparent to us. Wireless network operators initially resisted proposals to give their customers mobile access to the internet, questioning why they would want it. At the dawn of 4G’s adoption no one could have predicted the new business models that grew on the back of mobile broadband, like Uber, Spotify and Facebook.

Now, according to the European Patent Office, the number of patent applications related to “smart connected objects” has surged 54% over the last three years, suggesting new, related and as-yet unknown inventions will arrive even before 5G becomes available.

The article adds that this is news that should encourage us amid glum commentaries on the state of the world. There is promise yet in what we’re capable of achieving.

Not all rosy.

It’s not all rosy when it comes to 5G.

I recently read an article which points out that the level of awareness and certain hype around 5G has been increasing rapidly over recent years, and now it seems that we reached a peak in a sense that almost everybody knows that something called 5G is coming.

Some phone manufacturers pledge to launch a 5G device this year, AT&T uses a 5G network icon for its services, governments discuss if the Chinese companies should be allowed to build the infrastructure, and first beta tests are being undertaken.

Many things are happening. Analysts and tech enthusiasts talk a lot about 5G since the technology is promised to dramatically change the way certain things are set up.

The article adds that the enormous speed of data delivery is supposed to bring vital changes to almost all sectors of the economy, from healthcare to autonomous driving, and enable things that are not possible with other network standards.

However, reviewing the near future of 5G under the framework of common sense, it gets clear that, unfortunately, the technology will barely revolutionize the world.

What are the promises?

The article points out that it is believed that 5G will be a system that provides data communication “with zero latency.” In other words, the time between the call for action and the action itself will be so small, that it will not be noticeable for a person, or a machine, even in high-demanding applications.

For instance, it is stated that with 5G, an eight-gigabyte HD movie could be downloaded in just six seconds, compared to seven minutes with 4G. Clearly, perfect conditions should be maintained for this to be realized.

More impressive applications include healthcare or autonomous driving.

The article adds that one of the most discussed imaginary examples is a virtual surgery: imagine there is a surgeon in the US performing an operation on a person in India. She uses computer tools that mimic her actions and translate the movement data to a machine that holds instruments and actually cuts the tumour out with 100% precision and zero latency.

Or imagine a self-driving car that collects all the data points in real-time and sends them to a separate data centre. The data includes everything a car’s sensors, such as radars, lidars, and cameras, can catch from the world around, and it is easy to imagine that the data flow would amount to several gigabytes per second. All this data then would be processed on a server, and the output would be sent to the car’s computer. Again, all these things are supposed to happen in a split-second so that neither a machine nor a person could notice any significant delay.

The article points out that it is also often stated that 5G will finally enable a true internet of things and smart homes. With such a fast network speed as the one provided by 5G, all the things that are supposed to communicate with each other, like a smart home hub, your smartphone, and your smart lights, will be able to do so without any delay, enabling true smart home experience.

The major issue.

But here is the issue; the average global internet speed has grown to 9.1 Mbps, but this has been mostly driven by the “developed” economies where the average internet speed is acceptable (even if not that impressive) anyway.

The article adds that the important points are:

  • Even in Singapore, the region with the fastest average internet connection, the number is only around 60 Mbps, which is several times lower than the speed promised by 4G, the soon-to-be previous generation of communication systems;
  • About 135 countries have an average internet speed of <10 Mbps;
  • And 25% of the observed countries have the speed of connection of <2 Mbps, which is lower than the speed of basic 3G.

From here, an obvious conclusion arises: the modern world’s infrastructure development goes too slow to enable 5G to change the world with all the amazing applications it promises. It is clear that there just could not be a sudden leap from the current average of 9 Mbps to 1000 Mbps stated in 5G specifications.

The article points out that, as a result, the imaginary example of a remote surgery on a person from a “developing” country will not suddenly become possible, as the situation in these regions is even worse than this in such places as Europe, Singapore, or Americas; autonomous cars will continue to handle a big part of data on local processors for the near future; and the Internet of Things will need to wait a bit more.

Overall, it seems clear that although the romantic nature of the predictions around 5G is alluring, the technology will face the same real-world obstacles as many ground-breaking solutions, like the Internet itself, blockchain, or true artificial intelligence, have faced before or even facing now.

The article adds that it could be dangerous to make the same mistake of extensive hoping again with 5G as we did with the other game-changing technologies. We should not just assume and forecast that 5G will come and change the world drastically in a matter of months. Such assumptions can lead to yet another economic bubble, even if the degree would be not as substantial as with the Internet.

Moreover, the very mindset should switch toward accepting that it is not 5G itself, but everything around it that needs additional focus and efforts from developers, governments, and all other groups of people.

The technology will not change the world. It is the world that must change, and rather fast, in order to allow 5G to improve our lives.