6 March 2020

5G: Disrupting digital disruption?

Fifth generation mobile connectivity can process data up to 20 times faster than its predecessors. Few industries will be immune from the changes 5G will bring

Photo by Nate from Pexels

By Howard James

A new report recently published by McKinsey & Company outlines the impact 5G mobile networks will have on the global economy. The firm suggests the technology could grow world GDP by up to US$8 trillion over the next decade.

Much is said of 5G’s ability to transform whole industries and the way businesses and society operate. This comes down to one thing: Speed. Quicker connectivity means we can download files faster and consume greater quantities of data. It also allows us to swiftly upload information and better conduct two-way communication.

Transformative technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, Internet-of-things (IoT), cloud computing and many more will thrive in this new era of ultra-fast mobile connectivity. Just how much quicker is 5G?

Theoretically it’s 10 times faster than 4G, and more than 20 times quicker than 3G, according to CB Insights — the maximum speed of 5G is 10 billions of bits per second (Gpbs), versus 1 Gpbs for 4G and 0.42 Gpbs for 3G.

Current deployment

5G has already been rolled out across almost 400 cities globally. The vast majority of these are located in Europe, Middle East and Africa, and surprisingly in countries not known for their tech capabilities. Neither Latvia nor Lesotho are renowned for digital innovation, for example, yet the capital cities of both countries, Riga and Maseru, boast 5G connectivity — albeit with limited reach like most nations and municipalities at the moment.

The Asia Pacific has been surprisingly slow to adopt 5G. At the time of writing, only seven countries offer coverage in one or more cities. Unsurprisingly South Korea and China lead the way globally, with 85 and 57 cities connected (the US follows in third place with 50 cities connected). Australia, Japan, Maldives, New Zealand and Thailand are also connected but with limited reach.

Many countries are in the process of rolling out 5G. Singapore will be connected in January 2021, with Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam also in the race.

Achieving the unimaginable

Almost every industry will be disrupted. In most cases they will realise tasks that were unimaginable a mere year or so ago. Service providers who were once disruptive will themselves be disrupted.

In healthcare, faster connectivity will drive greater adoption of wearables, where patients can be diagnosed and monitored remotely. Microscopic cameras can be inserted into the human body to provide live streaming to doctors and specialists sitting several miles away. 5G will also enable remote surgery, where surgeons perform complex operations through use of robots.

For more than a decade, manufacturing has benefitted from IoT, where sensors and advanced automation continue to drive swift and efficient production lines. 5G stands to further benefit manufacturers by improving real time monitoring and quality assurance, and enabling predictive analytics to spot errors as they happen. The ability to highlight and analyse incidents in real time is significant, as manufacturers and other industries like energy and agriculture experience reduced incidents and more informed decision-making.

5G will likely be the catalyst for widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles (AVs). At the moment, AVs rely on their own computers and radar to navigate. Since 2016, the 5G Automotive Association has been developing what it calls “cellular-vehicle-to-everything” technology — or C-V2X. Leveraging 5G and edge computing, the technology allows AVs to communicate with one another, as well as with traffic lights and construction signs in order to coordinate movements safely and efficiently.

In the entertainment industry, 5G offers live streaming of unparalleled quality, with download speeds unrecognisable by recent standards. Expect to see a rise in applications that use virtual reality and augment reality. Similarly, the financial services will offer a greatly enhanced user experience, making banking, investing and insuring smoother and more efficient. And lastly, the tech industry has much to gain. The high-frequency radio waves that connect handsets to microcells and macrocells, which in turn connect to fiber-optic cables, will require expertise to develop, build and configure.

Caution exerted

While the number of countries rolling out 5G will surge in the coming 12 months, the private sector is exerting caution. Telcos are understandably upbeat on 5G’s capabilities — the vast majority of industries, however, have concerns.

Many question the security and privacy features of 5G. There are fears that 5G infrastructure can be used for foreign espionage — the UK’s decision to use Huawei technology in its nationwide 5G rollout has prompted outrage from international partners Australia and the US, citing the company’s close ties to the Chinese state as a severe security concern. With anti-China sentiment rife across the UK at the moment, expect to see the UK government dump Huawei’s involvement.

While a myriad of opportunities await us, an equal number of risks loom. 5G could entirely displace industries that since the advent of the internet have struggled. Those that can thrive in a 5G economy stand to gain significantly. Those that can’t won’t be around for very long.

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