THE REVOLUTION OF COMMUNICATION: 5G
Updated: Feb 2
In the simplest terms, 5G is a new cellular standard. Phone carriers have jumped to a new wireless standard roughly every decade. About 10 years ago, 4G, the fourth-generation network, arrived with significantly faster speeds and stronger reliability than 3G. About a decade before that, 3G arrived and was much faster and more robust than 2G. You get the picture. 
Figure 1: The timeline of different generations of communication technology
5G is set to follow the same trend, with an exponential increase in speed over the previous generation. This would theoretically mean download speeds of up to 10 Gigabytes per second. With speeds this high, one could download the whole collection of Harry Potter movies in a matter of seconds. Gaming is going to be revolutionized, with a lot more realistic setting in VR, AR, and extended reality (XR) with lighter devices. 
Figure 2: Speed of different generations of networks
Spectating live and remote events is going to be a different experience too, with the ability to change angles while viewing the event. Virtual interactions and meetings could also take place at a considerably more interactive level. Speed, however, is not what makes 5G truly revolutionary. If this were the only notable upgrade from the previous generations, 5G would just be another ‘G’ that transformed communication. It is much more than that.
For us to grasp the power of 5G, it is important to understand the concept of latency. Simply put, latency is the time taken for information to travel from the device, reach the server, and then for the response to travel back to the device. The latency for 4G networks is around 200 milliseconds. For a 5G network, it is reduced to 1 millisecond.
The average reaction time for humans to a visual stimulus is 250 ms or 1/4 of a second. People are capped at around 190-200 ms with proper training.
Imagine now that our car could react 250 times faster than us.
Imagine it could also respond to hundreds of incoming information and can also communicate its reactions back to other vehicles and road signals all within milliseconds. At 100km/h, the reaction distance is about 30 meters before you pull on the brakes. With a 1ms reaction time, the car would only have rolled a bit more than one inch. This would prove to be critical in the case of the development of autonomous vehicles
Vehicles are not the only devices that are going to be impacted. The whole internet of things (IoT), i.e. devices that can connect to the internet, will be transformed substantially. In 2020, there were an estimated 12B IoT connections globally, according to IoT Analytics. By 2025, it’s anticipated that there will be more than 30B IoT connections around the world, more than 4 IoT devices for every person on Earth.
Figure 3: Expected Impacts of 5G on Society
The IoT will impact several sectors which are the central pillars of society: energy, healthcare, media, industry, and transportation.
Automation in factories would be a whole new ball game, with precise time-sensitive processes that were once the domain of the human hand are performed by automated machines.
5G offers an enormous opportunity for expanding preventative and monitoring healthcare practices via wearable devices. Such devices are already used to track everything from sleep to blood glucose levels to physical activity, among other things. 5G’s faster speeds and greater network reliability will allow for the development of more complex devices, including those implanted directly into a human body rather than worn externally. In the field of remote-controlled robotic surgery, 5G has the potential to dramatically expand the ability of doctors to bring critical and specialized care services to patients worldwide. Conducting robotic surgery remotely is feasible today, especially in dense urban areas with access to fast broadband internet, but doctors generally have to be located in the same operating theatre as the patient for it to work. But by allowing for low latency and jitter-free communication over long distances, 5G could enable operations to take place from anywhere in the world. In January 2019, a team in China tested 5G remote surgery, removing an animal’s liver in the province of Fujian.
With high speeds and low latency, 5G could help enable more cost-effective energy transmission. Faster connection speeds could result in energy grids being more efficiently managed, which, in turn, could lead to less downtime. For example, during a power outage, 5G-equipped smart power grids could quickly provide insights into the problem using data and sensors. The tech could also lead to a more stable supply of energy, as suppliers would be equipped to make better-informed decisions about the distribution of power based on vast amounts of data and smart sensors. Better connectivity could also have upsides on the consumption end. Streetlights connected with 5G technology and equipped with sensors could dim if there aren’t any people or vehicles on the road, thus saving energy. This approach could lead to savings of up to $1B annually in the US, according to a report from Accenture.
In the agricultural sector, 5G will offer farmers the opportunity to get faster, more accurate information in the field which could help to increase outputs like crop yield and make it easier to prevent common crop and wildlife illnesses. Autonomous tractors, for example, may eventually use 5G to pair with drones to guide their work, like identifying which parts of a field needs fertilizer.
Economically, 5G is set to add over a trillion USD to the global economy by 2030 and generate around 20 million jobs worldwide.
Nevertheless, 5G technology, like any other revolutionary technology, will come with its own set of challenges. The telecom giants promise that 5G technology will thrill us with dramatically expanded, ultrafast wireless service. But they do not mention that it also means installing vastly more equipment, including cell towers, in ugly and intrusive ways. 5G needs many more cellular antennas, called “small cells,” than 4G. That’s because it uses higher-frequency radio waves, which carry much more data but have shorter ranges. Developing countries like India, where 4G has recently entered the market can hardly aspire to develop the infrastructure required to expand 5G beyond a dozen or so urban centres. For places like Africa, where the lack of infrastructure means that the majority of telecom providers are still operating at 3G capabilities, 5G is nothing but a distant dream.
In order to achieve higher data rates and massive network capacity, 5G requires a high amount of spectrum. The requirement includes a low-frequency band of less than 1 GHz, a mid-frequency band (in 2.3 - 3.5 GHz range) for its macrocells, and a high-frequency band (mmWave in 26 - 100 GHz range) for its microcells. A handful of clean-ups, harmonization and policy-level interventions are required to make the necessary spectrum available for 5G, especially in developing countries like India. For example, if a chunk of spectrum in the required band is already sold out to a third party for other purposes (such as for implementing Wi-Max), then a buy-back option is needed, which may not be feasible always. It might trigger some legal issues. Also, some parts of the spectrum could be already assigned to government organizations for which the regulatory authority must go through a very hard negotiation process to recover. Spectrum costs. Another concern is spectrum prices. Spectrum prices in the least Developed Countries are, on average, more than three times higher than that of developed countries. Thus, the cost of the spectrum could be a major factor that will make a difference in the 5G roll-out from country to country.
One of the distinct features of 5G is the use of cognitive radios. This type of radio can opportunistically detect and use available channels in the neighbourhood. But this also requires a spectrum sharing policy to be established among the mobile operators first, otherwise detected opportunities cannot be used due to payment issues. Regulatory authorities in developing countries usually do not allow spectrum sharing between operators in a fear of possible revenue losses.
An increasing reliance on low-latency communications means that connection stability will become non-negotiable. If URLLC is interrupted (on purpose or by accident), this could result in death in the context of surgery or remote driving.
5G technology will also provide a vast array of opportunities, for hackers and criminals. 5G will have far more traffic points of contact than the previous generations. To be completely secure, all of these need to be monitored. Since this might prove difficult, any unsecured areas might compromise other parts of the network. The increased speed and volume of data involved in 5G will make it harder for providers to monitor security in real-time. Additionally, unlike our phones, many of the devices which are considered to be a part of the Internet of Things are not protected against cybersecurity threats and will be venerable to network breaching and hacking.
Lastly, the idea that exposure 5G network would be carcinogenic has been quite prevalent. However, relevant governing bodies have time and time again debunked such claims. The WHO writes, “To date, and after much research performed, no adverse health effect has been causally linked with exposure to wireless technologies”.
In many ways, 5G is not just a slight improvement from the previous technology, but a breakthrough development. Nevertheless, it is not unlike other breakthrough technologies that have transformed our society in fundamental ways. Let us, for an analogy, Consider nuclear technology. The technology came with the potential to change the world, which it certainly did. Every technological invention is a curse as well as a blessing, and so was nuclear technology. It helped power entire cities but also resulted in intentional and unintentional catastrophes like Hiroshima and Chernobyl respectively. Will the technology be more of a curse, or a blessing is entirely contingent on us, on how we put it to use. The wheel can be used to drive oxen in the field, but it can and was also used to drive war chariots. What is not contingent, however, is the fact that the new technology is coming whether we like it or not, and we better be prepared.