The fifth generation of mobile, wireless technology is about so much more than speed. What’s going against it- and in its favour?
CELLPHONE TOWERS ARE EASY TO SPOT. EVEN when not camouflaged as trees, flags or church steeples, they’re massive structures and what mobile networks use to provide high-speed, high-quality coverage. But when you find yourself in an area with terrible reception, or when your devices lose signal and switch from 4G to 3G, it’s likely the network is congested. 5G, the fifth generation of wireless technology, is about to change that forever.
“What we are doing is we’re using more of a particular natural phenomenon,” explains Brett StClair, the CEO and co-founder of Teraflow.ai, a global data, and machine learning engineering consultancy. “5G uses spectrum or waves. It uses the same waves that we’ve been using since the sixties to deliver television on. It’s very clean, it’s very high capacity… and all we’ve been using it for is to send an image through!”
The microwave effect
The idea of 5G networks connecting cities and millions of devices together sounds revolutionary but it’s also been met with trepidation. Protests have broken out around the world in a bid to stop 5G being rolled out, fearing that the next generation of mobile connectivity could have serious health ramifications and impact the environment negatively. Conspiracy theories circulating around 5G and the coronavirus pandemic saw activists in the United Kingdom burning down phone masts.
“With 5G, one of the things that come about is that we have to make the waves go further than they normally can. One of the words The fifth generation of mobile, wireless technology is about so much more than speed. What’s going against it – and in its favor? that’s used to describe that is radiation. There’s a term called non-ionizing, which means it’s not generating enough energy to be harmful to anything, let alone a human being. The photon energy is so low that it can’t harm anyone,” explains SqwidNet’s Managing Director, Phathizwe Malinga.
Research conducted by Christopher Collins, a professor of radiology at New York University, showed that unlike the electromagnetic waves used in X-rays, MRIs and ultrasounds, which are powerful enough to break chemical bonds apart (and cause serious damage), the waves used by 5G, Bluetooth and even Wi-Fi are weak.
They cannot even penetrate skin.
This also explains why 5G is very different – and possibly safer – than its predecessor. It may be the next generation of mobile connectivity but with 5G, we won’t need more fake trees.
5G towers differ both physically and functionally. They’re so small that they can be installed on light poles or even traffic lights.
But because 5G data is transmitting on an entirely different part of the radio spectrum to 4G, more of these ‘mini towers’ are needed to cover the same amount of space.
“Unfortunately to get those 5G speeds, you’ll need a lot more of these towers. I’m imagining municipalities will hold off as long as possible,” adds Malinga. “As we start moving into this space, a lot of the networks are starting to get better understanding that this is a multi- connectivity space. We need to start to create combination-use cases that will result in a better-looking city.”
Vodacom was the first operator to launch a mobile and fixed 5G service in South Africa in May 2020 after launching Africa’s first fixed
5G commercial service in Lesotho in 2018. The mobile operator’s plan is to deploy 5G coverage throughout its African footprint over the next few years, provided it can access the necessary spectrum within each market.
“5G is also capable of supporting entirely new and advanced-use cases such as challenging enterprise applications that will improve their operational efficiency, sustainability, and/or health and safety,” explains Vodacom’s executive head of media relations, Byron Kennedy.
“Some examples of such applications include providing connectivity for
remotely piloted vehicles in the mining and transportation sectors, industrial robots in the manufacturing sector, and environmental monitoring within the energy and utility sector.”
Beyond the smartphone
While 5G technology can deliver higher data speeds and a massive network capacity with a greater number of connected devices, one of its biggest problems is range. “What it does from an impact point of view is it excludes
a lot of the population. If you’re not living in the city, 5G might not be a reality for you. But luckily, there is this good headway being made on the fibre side. So you can almost think of 5G and fibre being easily substitutable from a business point of view,” adds Malinga.
Because 5G has the potential to increase how data is moved, it will enable a wide range of new business applications and use cases that go far beyond the smartphone. The industrial application of 5G, especially when it comes to the Internet of Things (IoT) and advancing AI, is often overlooked. By 2025, there will be 1.2 billion 5G connections worldwide according to the GSMA, a trade body of global mobile network operators.
“5G will change how we manage our compute loads,” explains StClair, “no matter where you are in the world, what 5G enables you to do is bring machine learning and AI right to the edge of the network.”
When data is stored in the cloud, it most likely means that it is sitting in a server farm thousands of kilometers away. Big cloud players like Google, Facebook and Apple all have massive data centers in Scandinavian countries like Denmark and Sweden.
“Even though you have bigger bandwidth to your device, if the service is in America, you’re still going to suffer from something called latency. Even if it’s 300 milliseconds, in today’s world, that’s a lot of time lost and even billions of transactions,” adds StClair. “We have so much data in the world. And with 5G, we’re essentially going to multiply that by a factor of 1,000. That amount of data needs to be processed but we don’t process it like we used to process data stored in a database.
What we do now is we run machine learning models to be more predictive to certain situations. The power of 5G is the ability to deploy models closer to the end-user.”
Bringing technology closer using 5G means that we’re able to connect things that are far away from a business but act as though they are a part of a business. That’s why 5G is so much more than a simple step-up in network speeds, it’s a game-changer when it comes to connectivity.
“In farming, you can connect your cattle… you can connect boreholes that are far away and know how much water is inside. In towns, you can connect vehicles or even water meters and start detecting, in real-time, leaks and stop water from spreading,” says Malinga.
“Ultimately, we need a device or a sensor that we can attach to something that we care about. 5G and IoT are complimentary, necessary, but they don’t do the same thing. If we introduce these technologies to the people who can afford [them], they can fix and address their quality of life themselves, and then ride that exponential curve to a point where they start becoming small businesses that become large businesses that eventually become global players.”