Life in the fast lane

From voice to texts to music and now video, mobile communication is hitting light speed and learning new tricks.

Every ten years or so, the mobile communications industry takes a leap forward and with new devices from Apple and Samsung during 2020, we are at the cusp of the Fifth Generation. 4G is often dubbed ‘mobile broadband’ but on launch there was no single ‘killer application’; rather, the jump in speeds from 3G allowed new industries to emerge such as the streaming of music and video. The same is perhaps true of 5G – new applications will emerge to take advantage of new possibilities which will drive user demand. The industry estimates that there will be 11.5bn users of 5G by the middle of the next decade*.

The main advantage of 5G over the previous generation is of course the speed – around 20 times faster – which means you can download Taylor Swift’s seminal ‘1989’ album from Apple Music in 0.03 seconds. This is unquestionably a good thing in itself, and allows existing services to be delivered faster, in higher quality and with greater reliability, such as the new TV services being offered by Disney and Apple, and the streaming of video games by Microsoft, Sony and Google.

However, the potential of 5G is really the possibility that new businesses will emerge from the ability to process and transmit vast amounts of data, both in the form of consumer services, industrial applications and public utilities.

The concept of the ‘Internet of Things’ has been around for a while. This idea is that consumer and industrial devices can be attached to the mobile network to increase functionality. The ‘Connected Home’ – where a hub such as Alexa, Nest or Hive allows you to control your lighting, heating, smart energy meter and security cameras – has been becoming increasingly popular and 5G should accelerate this as the higher capacity will allow more devices to be added.

One opportunity identified by many analysts is that it will improve the ability of vehicles to communicate with each other and their environment. This should help the emergence over the next decade of a new generation of connected cars, with hopes this will reduce the number of crashes and accidents. We can also expect that this will facilitate the emergence and roll-out of fully self-driving cars as well.

The idea that the new networks will facilitate the capture of massive amounts of data is also behind the idea that 5G will have many industrial applications. Precision manufacturing lines armed with robots, sensors and the ability to send and receive vast data over the network should improve productivity by, for example, helping to identify defects in products or the production line itself. 

The idea of using sensors and 5G should also have applications in the public space and allow assets such as roads, public transport and buildings to be monitored to allow, for example, traffic flows to be optimised in so-called ‘Smart Cities’. 

“500 billion devices are expected to be connected to the internet by 2030, equivalent to over 50 devices per person.”
Source: Cisco

Some of the potential risks behind the roll out include the strain this processing puts on the battery life of the handset and the fact that, whilst 5G is ideal for dense urban settings and factories, it may be less suitable for rural areas due to the limited long range coverage – far more base stations will be needed to achieve the same quality of service. However, the biggest single risk is probably the political issues behind the scenes between the USA and China – the former worrying about the security implications of Chinese network devices being at the heart of their telecoms infrastructure. The technology bans and counter measures may slow down the roll out of the networks and handsets and push prices up.

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