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 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.
A short note on the nature of 5G
The technology of 5G is the fifth generation of mobile communication systems, a successor to the modern 4G, which in turn was built to replace 3G, and so on. Most people who have ever used mobile data on a smartphone can recognize the number-letter abbreviation.
The most important improvement that is brought by each subsequent generation of a network system is the speed of data communication. It is estimated that 3G can allow the bandwidth of 2 Mbps, 4G can reach 200 Mbps, and 5G promises to enable the speed of up to 100 Gbps. Here is what Raconteur writes about the speed of 5G:
“With speeds of up to 100 gigabits per second, 5G will be as much as 1,000 times faster than 4G, the latest iteration of mobile data technology. The gains brought about by 4G are already being felt by businesses whose employees are often on the move.”
At first glance, there is not much special in the new technology. Yes, the Internet will likely become more easily accessible due to higher possible speed of the network, but a stable 4G connection available today allows usual users to browse all the social networks, watch Youtube, and read Medium without significant constraints. However, the promises of 5G lie beyond the usual user experience.
What are the promises?
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.
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 tumor 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 center. 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.
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. As Raconteur puts it:
“Billions, perhaps trillions of things — and people — would be able to communicate with each other. One of the advantages, advocates say, is that we will be able to automate the mundane aspects of our lives. This means a more connected world of instantaneous information is just around the corner.”
Then goes the topic of streaming. It can be expected that with fast and prominent internet connection, more computing tasks, entertainment, or data handling will shift to the streaming model: video games will be streamed from the cloud, all the TV shows will be available on demand, and all the computation will no longer require powerful personal devices — in other words, all the things we do now on our computers could be done on a server and than streamed to us via the internet.
All these promises sound really impressive on paper. But here is the observation — most new technologies that promise to revolutionize the world face difficult reality.
Here goes the reality check
It is very common that we hear that a certain technology will create a revolution and change the world tomorrow. This was the case with the Internet, smartphones, artificial intelligence, drones, blockchain, cryptocurrency…but none of these things really changed the world, not in the sense that one can imagine and certainly not from the first try. Let’s review this point in detail.
Any technology is just the means
The most important idea that needs to be discussed here is the point of technologies being means to do great things, not the end in themselves. This implies we need all the complimentary things to exist in an accessible for a user way in order for a technology to start impacting our lives. The best way to explain this is by a set of examples.
Firstly, the Internet. The modern network system dates back to the 1980s when the first commercial links appeared between people and enterprises. However, it is not until the late 1990s that enterprises started to use it extensively, which draw more users to the network…which is when the Dotcom bubble happened as most of the revolutionary changes promised by the technology turned out to be hard to realize in the real world full of obstacles.
Furthermore, smartphones. It is only when Apple and Google realized a smartphone itself is not that smart until there are enough applications for consumers that we saw phones gaining significant traction in the mass audience. Several years after, many phone manufacturers are starting to shift to more services-based business models, as it is what we do on our phones that matters, not the phones themselves. For instance, Apple’s services segment is the one that currently drives the growth in the company, since iPhone sales have stagnated over the last years.
Artificial Intelligence does not exist in nature (it is called artificial, after all) and it can not change the world by itself. We, humans, still need to create a whole set of algorithms, rules, ethical standards, and other things in order to allow AI to truly change the world and realize all the bold predictions that are currently being made in the media and books.
Drones had not been relevant for users until such companies as DJI created consumer-friendly products with great cameras, which provided a clear use case.
Blockchain has been widely discussed in the news as “the next big thing” over the last 3 years (at least), but there is still only a few actual applications which look more like small-scale tests rather than actual commercial products. And the promises of cryptocurrencies being completely secure turn out to be not true in the real world, as the problems such as a hack of a crypto exchange arise when the technology meets humans.
Notably, almost every time a game-changing technology appeared on a horizon, certain economic bubble occurred: the Dotcom Crisis of 1999–2000, a stagnation of consumer-grade smartphones before 2007 (when the first iPhone was launched), or the recent burst of the cryptocurrency bubble which led to the major coins’ prices plummeting around 90%.
It is clear that 5G will likely face the same issues as most of the technologies described above. What people need is the infrastructure, extensive testing, favorable economic environment, and, most importantly, lots of talent to develop actual applications for this revolutionary technology.
Real-life obstacles need to be overcome
As regards more down-to-earth considerations, it is easy to understand the future problems of 5G just by looking at the tech world around us.
For instance, let’s talk about the stability and speed of modern networks. Here, I can give a personal example which I am sure most people can relate to.
Living in Germany has many advantages, but, unfortunately, a fast and stable internet connection is certainly not among those. It is completely normal for my network to be down at least 4–5 times a day for 10–40 minutes, which means it is around 1–2 hours a day that I do not have access to the Internet in the 21st century. Most of the people I know complain that their home network speed does not even reach 10 Mbps, which is slower than even the most basic mobile 4G.
A similar problem is faced by many people living in Europe and the UK, and I can not discard an assumption that the situation is similar in many other parts of the world (please let me know if it is the case). Looking at the latest innovation ratings, it is seen that Germany, for instance, scores rather high on IT access (the sixth rank among 130 economies) and use, and the country is placed 9 out of the most innovative countries. Therefore, it seems easy to assume that the IT issues can be even more prominent in at least 120 other economies.
Looking at the general statistics regarding internet speed, it is seen that the average situation is improving.
“The average global internet speed is getting faster. The previous year produced a global average internet speed of 7.40Mbps. This year, the global average is 9.10Mbps — a rise of 23% (1.7Mbps).”
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 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.
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 groundbreaking solutions, like the Internet itself, blockchain, or true artificial intelligence, have faced before or even facing now.
Therefore, I believe 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.
5G is not the panacea for all the limits we face, it is just another means to the greater things. 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.