What is 5G? Why does it pop up more and more in tech magazines and public discussions alike? That's because 5G will change everything.
5G is the fifth generation of a mobile connectivity standard. This standard is about speed, connectivity and reliability features of the mobile network. If you use a smartphone today, you are most likely using the 4G standard. In the early days of the iPhone 3G was introduced and before that we had 1G and 2G.
Roughly speaking 1G allowed for phone calls to be made, 2G for text messages to be sent, 3G for mobile internet, 4G for a faster mobile internet and 5G will blow everybody’s mind – metaphorically speaking.
What is 5G and why is it a big deal?
5G is not just incrementally faster. It is way, way faster. You can expect 5G to be 100x (!) faster than your current 4G connection while using 1000x (!!) less energy per data unit transmitted.
For the average consumer today, this would mean that you have a super high definition 8K Netflix movie downloaded in a second while using less precious battery of your smartphone.
To many, this might sound like nothing even close to a game changer. And they are right. It’s not. The crazy potential of 5G will be revealed with uncountable completely new applications and services that are not yet invented.
A new economy
A report by IHS Markit found that «5G has the potential to unlock up to $12.3 trillion of revenue across a broad range of industries. To put this in perspective, that revenue figure is nearly equivalent to total U.S. consumer spending in 2016, and more than the combined spending of China, Japan, France, Germany, and the U.K. This revenue also represents about 4.6 percent of all global real output in 2035.»
What services and applications will generate this kind of revenue? «By 2020, analysts estimate that there will be more than 20 billion installed Internet of Things devices around the world, generating massive amounts of data.» Those Internet of Things devices will create a new layer on top of our economy and change the way we live, work, manufacture, travel, educate ourselves, take care of our health and more.
Force for innovation
Remember the connected self-driving cars everybody is talking about? You need 5G for that to work on a main stream scale. By enabling these kinds of ground-breaking innovations, the 5G technology will bring along a similar shift of consumer behavior and expectations as the smartphone did.
The connected self-driving car example is also useful to illustrate another breakthrough of the 5G technology: I assume, you’d want your connected self-driving car to react to traffic conditions instantly, without any delay, in real-time. Because that can make the difference between having an accident or not, maybe even between life and death.
We humans have accidents to some extend because we need to process and react to what is happening on the street and humans have an average reaction time of about 200 milliseconds. That is short. But you know what is really short? 1 millisecond. And that’s what 5G can achieve: A fascinatingly low latency of 1 millisecond.
The virtual becomes reality
What these low latency and high speeds of 5G connectivity mean is that real-time or «real» interactions can technically be replaced by virtual ones all together – and that is very significant. Imagine someone you love needs to undergo a critical surgery and the best doctor for that is at the other end of the world. In a world not too far away in the future with a technology like 5G and high precision surgery robots, this world-class doctor can perform the surgery your loved one needs from the other end of the world by virtually directing surgery robots to do exactly what he wants. The doctor sees how his patient is doing at the other end of the world in real-time, the actions of the doctor are transmitted across the globe to the robot in real-time. Also collaborating with other medical professionals could happen virtually in real-time. It would be like the patient and the doctor are in the same room.
In other words, 5G is the network on top of which a «real» virtual reality can and will be built: social gaming, augmented reality headsets, smart manufacturing, education, collaboration in the work place and much more will be affected. «5G will become the underlying fabric of an entire ecosystem of fully connected intelligent sensors and devices, capable of overhauling economic and business policies, and further blurring geographical and cultural borders.»
Inevitable, but when?
It seems like 5G is inevitable and it’s just a question of when it will become main stream. Surveys indicate that we can expect a working 5G network in 2020 but all the applications that will be built on these 5G networks will take some time to mature.
«The United States and China are especially advanced in this domain, with China currently enjoying the world’s biggest 5G market. Switzerland appears to be more or less in line with the EU.» In Switzerland, first pilot projects under real conditions started in 2018. In 2019, Swisscom is expected to roll out to 60 towns with operating 5G networks compared to six at the end of 2018.
As you can imagine, building a 5G network is not an easy task and a regulated one as well. Because of the frequency spectrum that 5G operates in, its signal can only travel roughly 300 meters before it loses its magical abilities compared to around the 10 kilometers that 4G was able to travel. 5G in its current state is also unable to penetrate walls and is severely impacted by bad weather conditions.
This means that there must be many more 5G transmitters than there are 4G transmitters today and that such transmitters needed to be installed every couple of hundred meters. Ouch!
On the positive side, this allows for a much higher density of connected devices within a given area which is a big plus for the age of the Internet of Things, connected cars and all. With a tightly nit 5G network, 1 million devices can be connected in an area of 1 square kilometer while 4G is only able to handle this amount of devices in an area of 500 square kilometers.
On the negative – or at least skeptical – side, you might be concerned what all these transmitters and frequencies will do to your health. «The International Society of Doctors for the Environment has argued that 5G’s higher frequency and shorter wavelength means it’s more likely to penetrate cells in the body, and that further research should be done before it’s rolled out. A city council near San Francisco voted to block the deployment of 5G towers over health risks.» And also in Switzerland there are critical voices: «Peter Kälin, president of the Basel-based Doctors for Environmental Protection group, is warning that 5G uses very short waves, which will be absorbed by the skin. He adds, “The skin is already exposed to the harmful effects of ultraviolet (UV) radiation. 5G could present an extra cancer risk”.» However, others argue that «there is little evidence of any ill effects from using 5G».
In addition, one ought to be really careful with who you trust to build and supply components for a nation’s 5G network when considering how absolutely critical this infrastructure will be in the future. Building a vulnerable 5G infrastructure will also make its nation vulnerable beyond imagination. It’s along these lines where there’s already a conflict going on between several countries like the US, UK or Australia and Chinese technology provider Huawei who’s a supplier for 5G technology.
The 5G debate
With so much at stake in terms of business deals and money to be made and critical infrastructure to be built, you can imagine, that there will be a lot of lobbying going on in the coming years in regards to 5G – and I believe especially in 2019. So I’d like to encourage you to keep your eyes and ears open and be sensitive towards public and closed-doors debates regarding the connectivity standard of the future.
Some will say that 5G is inevitable and necessary to stay competitive and innovative. Others will raise voices of caution. Who’s right?
Once more, we will have a situation where technology will be highly political – as it should be. And citizens should adapt to the increased importance of technological literacy since it shapes our lives. Therefore I hope that this article has helped you answer the question "What is 5G?".
*** This article and podcast episode answering the question "What is 5G?" is part of the Sparkr Executive Briefing Series. Feel free to join the Sparkr Newsletter to get carefully selected tech and innovation updates to your inbox. And also consider subscribing to the Sparkr Podcast where this Executive Briefing on 5G is available to listen to on your commute, at the gym or elsewhere. ***
For this thought piece about the question "What is 5G?" I cited the following sources with more information, visualizations etc.:
MIT Technology Review:
World Economic Forum: