BY ADMIN | NOV 11, 2020

How can Telcos face the game changer: 5G

In April 2019 South Korea became the first country to adopt 5G on a large scale. Hours after the launch in South Korea, the United States rolled out services, staking a claim as being the first country to introduce 5G, challenging South Korea based on a technicality - the number of users that had access to the new technology. This competition is in itself sufficient to demonstrate just how significant 5G is in the evolution (or should we say revolution?!) of cellular technology.

The latest iteration of wireless technology, fifth generation cellular wireless, or 5G as it is more commonly known, has already been launched on a commercial scale by Telcos in a number of countries across the globe, with many more working hard to introduce it at the earliest possible opportunity. Some analysts predict that by 2023 5G will have been adopted by more than 10% of the world’s mobile connections. Even at its introductory stages it is highly sought after, simply because it is far far superior to its predecessor, 4G.

A Far Superior Technology

As Telcos have widely publicised, two of the biggest advantages of 5G are speed and response. We are talking multigigabit speeds, with some estimates suggesting potential peak speeds as high as 20 gigabits per second. Latency is also reduced to around one millisecond, dramatically increasing response time. For the day-to-day user this translates into ultra-fast download, streaming with no buffering, exceptionally high quality video calls and more accurate location tracking. Graphics heavy video games will also become so much smoother. For Telcos, this means greater customer satisfaction and a strong potential for increased subscription, both in terms of a wider customer base as well as sign-ups for additional services by existing subscribers.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is also set to become a lot more efficient and effective. The new 5G technology has the capacity to connect more devices at a much lower cost than 4G. This opens up many more opportunities for the development and proliferation of IoT. It could be that in a few years we will see many more smart cities and smart homes, with Telcos leading the way in establishing these hi-tech societies.

Two other areas set to receive a huge boost are virtual reality and augmented reality. With 5G technology, the need for a separate device is eliminated and the regular mobile phone can be used in conjunction with a VR headset. The implications of this are far reaching and can cover almost every sphere of life. For instance, Telcos can tap into the amazing potential of 5G to develop telehealth and so uplift a community’s wellbeing. Or, working in collaboration with mobile device companies, Telcos can help to enhance education and make it more engaging.

The Dangers of a Digital Divide

But it is not all ‘rainbows and butterflies’ as that overplayed pop song tells us. There is a potential downside to this new cellular technology. The digital divide is perhaps one of the most obvious, as there is a real possibility that 5G could increase this divide. While a handful of nations - well actually cities - are racing ahead, technologically evolving and progressing at breakneck speed, there are many, many parts of the world that either have very sketchy internet connections or no access to the internet at all. Those places with the infrastructure and facilities (and finances, of course!) can adopt this new technology and reap its benefits easily enough. With every step forward they take, other places with little or no internet get left behind. Left unchecked this could create a chasm that will become exceedingly difficult to bridge.

The ramifications of a digital divide can already be seen in today’s society. We can take a very simple example, that of education during the Covid-19 lockdown. The wealthier schools very swiftly moved to virtual education and some have even been able to conduct exams online. However, the number of students able to carry on with their education in this manner forms a very small percentage of students in lockdown worldwide. In so many parts of the world, both schools and students have neither the economic nor material ability to do this. And so, these students get left behind, with teachers and parents scrambling to find alternative, viable methods to try to keep the education of these children rolling along, in whatever way possible.

This one instance should suffice to demonstrate how detrimental the digital divide could be. The point is, though, that this need not be the case. If used properly, 5G can help us bridge this gap and bring the hitherto disparate segments of society together.

Internet Access for All

To begin with, the frequency spectrum of 5G, comprising low-band, mid-band and high-band waves could open up access to previously underserved places. For this, the national 5G network should be a combination of all wave types. So, the high-band waves, that can only travel short distances and require more nodes to facilitate transmission, could be used in densely populated cities. Meanwhile, a combination of low- and mid-band waves could be utilized for more rural areas, as these can travel much longer distances. In this way it becomes possible to provide internet to places that do not have it and enhance service in places with poor reception.

Telcos should take the lead in this process, working with the relevant government authorities in order to set up the necessary infrastructure. This work should be all-inclusive, reaching out to the most rural parts of a country or state. For this to be successful, Telcos should prioritise the goal of servicing a nation over profit margins and the bottomline. If short-term profit were to be the primary aim, then the status quo cannot be changed. Bridging the digital divide will ultimately reap rewards, social and financial, and this long-term vision must be the driving force for Telcos as they work towards introducing and proliferating 5G.

As is the case with most new iterations of wireless internet, 5G too requires specific hardware. And we all know just how expensive these new gizmos are. In order to reach underserved areas and become more inclusive, pricing needs to be reconsidered. Alternatives to the high-end devices, options that are more economical and user-friendly, need to be designed. This means reconsidering the nature of these devices and how they will be put to use.

While affordability may seem anomalous when discussing mobile devices, it is not completely impossible. In fact, the 4G era spawned a range of mobile brands that were dedicated to developing inexpensive phones and tablets, proving that the technology can be made available to the economically less advantaged segments of society. For groups that may still not be able to access these units, other solutions need to be sought. Community-based, shared devices are one possibility. Or maybe new spaces could be created, some kind of amalgamation of the post office and internet cafe. This is an area requiring collaboration between Telcos and mobile device companies. The pooling of resources and roles of these two companies will surely produce viable and practical options for underserved communities. What is needed is a genuine desire to uplift the underprivileged segments of society and a little creativity.

Many experts say that the biggest benefits of 5G are yet to be imagined. This new cellular technology has so many uses that we have not even thought of yet. At this stage, the possibilities are limited only by human imagination. As the world innovates new functions and purposes for 5G, priority should be given to facilitating equity. Telcos should view themselves as trailblazers not just in technological innovation but also in social reform and so strive to make this fifth generation cellular technology the wireless solution for all.