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5G (huh!): what is it good for? Actually, pretty much everything

by AprilSix Proof


2019 is shaping up to be the year for 5G; everyone seems to be talking about this super high-capacity, super low-latency connectivity. Here in Europe, UK telecommunications provider EE began its 5G service roll-out earlier this year in the country’s six biggest metropolises, a little after Swisscom activated its network in April, and burgeoning smart city Berlin trialled the first 5G connection over a live network in March.

Here’s why you should care. Let’s start with speed – probably the most touted benefit. Much of the 5G conversation has focused on what it will do for everyday mobile connectivity; the technology most consumers have the closest relationship with. This new service promises unprecedented data rates and near-imperceptible lag, which basically means the suffering of buffering will be a thing of the past. We can all look forward to spending our old age in our VR rocking chairs, regaling our grandchildren with stories of that long-forgotten ‘LOADING’ message. A 5G-enabled world means instant downloads, unlimited streaming, anywhere, anytime.

So the LOADING page will go the way of the dinosaurs and dial-up tone (Generation Z: ask your parents. Or Google a meme. Get off my lawn). But 5G isn’t just faster 4G. In many ways, the name is misleading. 5G signifies more than climbing a rung on the connectivity ladder. It represents a single, integrated network of networks, joining user devices, terrestrial links and satellite communication into one seamless and invisible web of connectivity.

That is what 5G evangelists mean when they expound on the ‘ubiquity’ of 5G. It’s less like swapping out your iPhone 8 for an iPhone X, and more like graduating to that iPhone X from a rotary dial. Or a potato.

Take the much-lauded Internet of Things, for example. Your expectation as a customer (that most rallying of private sector drivers) is for your phone to connect to your home assistant, to connect to your laptop, to connect to your FitBit. Otherwise, what’s the point? Device inter-connectivity has become the norm rather than a novelty, but its potential is still restricted by the capacity and reach of our networks. Expand those, and the possibilities expand with them.

This inter-connectivity and increased capacity can deliver in other fields too. Imagine maternity clothing that is able to monitor the baby’s heartbeat, and send an alert to the mother and her obstetrician if it detects an anomaly. Or in industry, where machine-managed automation can save emissions on the transport of goods by charting the most efficient route.

Think of the lives a 5G-enabled ambulance could save, as it relays 4K two-way video and realtime patient vitals to the doctors in the receiving hospital, helping them to communicate with the paramedics and ensure they are completely prepared once the patient arrives. Or school lessons that demonstrate the material in Virtual or Augmented Reality, enabling students to connect with it like never before.

Plus, the amplifying effects of satellites in this ‘network of networks’ will be out of this world (I’m not sorry). For truly global, ubiquitous coverage, you need space. It is not financially viable for terrestrial operators to lay fibre in remote regions, which is why the initial 5G roll-outs have been in densely populated areas. Geostationary and low orbiting satellites have no such problem from their vantage point high above the Earth; their reach is unlimited.

Satellite connectivity itself isn’t new – the development here is that with 5G, the device or application will seamlessly transition to whatever medium is best, merging satellite and terrestrial connections without the user noticing. With satellite-enabled 5G, high-speed connectivity will be the norm everywhere on Earth, no matter the location or competing demand. Even in otherwise well-connected areas like cities, ad-hoc, concentrated peaks of data traffic like festivals and sporting events can still overload today’s fibre networks. In the 5G world, this will just be absorbed by satellites.

Many of these developments are already underway, in no small way thanks to some of our 5G-inclined clients. On the space side, global connectivity provider OneWeb’s mission to bring internet to everyone – starting with schools in rural and remote areas – is coming closer with every batch of satellites launched. Back here on Earth, Ordnance Survey has an entire programme dedicated to preparing for 5G, including developing a digital twin of the real world to help local authorities plan their 5G roll-out.

In short, there’s good reason for all the noise around 5G. The movement will be a revolution, not an upgrade, and it’s one that’s hurtling along at pace. We’re very much looking forward to both the applications we know it will bring, and those we haven’t yet imagined. Perhaps next time I’ll be posting this blog from the Sahara, or the Arctic Circle?