Mobile communication has only improved up to now, but 5G is something different. It would be hard to miss the headlines about the advent of 5G, from claims about how fast it is, to concerns that one company’s dominance may pose a national security risk. There’s certainly some truth to this but, like most things, there’s a bit more to it than that.
Even if technology is not your preferred subject there are some considerations for everyone before simply accepting the coming changes. Doing so might avoid a repeat of privacy issues that now challenge us, after handing over all our data to the likes of Facebook and Google, in return for supposedly free services.
First the good news. 5G is going to offer much faster transfer speeds and almost no delay (latency) in opening web pages. At its full potential, videos will play at high resolution with no buffering, and voice and video calls will appear smooth and crystal clear. With more than half the planet now connected to the Internet, 5G also will better handle the volume of connections.
And it’s not just humans that will be connecting, machines will too. This is the internet of things, where sensors, appliances, vehicles and cameras could outnumber humans who use the net. However there’s also the potential for a downside, but more on that later.
Mobile communications go back to the invention of radio, but the form we typically understand as mobile communication is private, person-to-person calling. Motorola made the first call in the early 70s, which might surprise you given how much time passed before it became commonplace. Besides its big and power-hungry phones, the network was expensive and time-consuming to build. This made mobile phones off-limits to everyone but the richest executives, and then it was more
a status symbol than a communication tool.
South Africa issued the first licences to Vodacom and MTN in 1994. By then, mobile phones had improved and the cost to build the network had reduced, but it was still only available in the major cities, and over time along the major highways and larger towns.
The ‘G’ in mobile tech refers to the generation and is a large and complex set of standards that phone makers, network operators and hardware manufacturers agree on to allow the hundreds of brands and systems to work on the new networks.
When South Africans first connected it was 2G, with calls and SMS functions the extent of its services. Sms volumes between people probably peaked on New Year’s Eve 1999. Thanks, in part, to how much the Japanese loved their phones, the mobile web became popular in the early 2000s.
For those that don’t remember, it was basically a smarter SMS service, but it was slow and text-based. If you did load a regular website it wouldn’t just take forever, it would be expensive. This was 2.5G, which still has hundreds of thousands of devices using it to process card transactions. Those card payment devices are basically old, mobile phones. 3G offered greater data speed and, thanks to the launch of the smartphone in 2007, demand grew rapidly. This demand signalled the beginning of the end for the old mobile network.
As data services grew, the ability to handle all that traffic became a challenge. 4G offered more improvements to speed and capacity, but ultimately the capacity issue was going to prove a real problem. Capacity is the number of users that can be accommodated in an area using the mobile base stations. It’s already able to handle about 100 000 users per square kilometre, but as other devices ‒ not just mobile phones ‒ begin to connect, speeds drop as do calls, degrading the experience.
5G can handle ten times the current capacity but it needs new transmission frequencies to do so. These are the ‘spectrum requirements’ you see in the news. In each country, these frequencies are either used by something else or need to have regulations passed to allow them to be used.
South Africa needs to allocate the frequencies for 5G, which is due in 2020 but also to allocate more for the current 3/4G networks. The government has not had a good track record in meeting the agreed deadlines, and this remains a hurdle for when the new networks may become available. Networks like Vodacom have said that, with the additional spectrum, we could see data prices halve, which would bring South Africa’s data costs in line with other countries, and boost the internet-driven economy.
Data has been the real driver for more speed and spectrum. From effectively using nothing 20 years ago, you could say we now use nothing else. You might still call and receive SMS notifications, but most of the time you spend looking at your mobile phone it is the data connection that’s being used. Services like WhatsApp have not only made SMSes or messaging obsolete, you can now also call, send voice messages, photos, videos and even video calls.
Legacy is the only reason why we use the name ‘phone’ because, considering how we use it, the ‘phone’ is either a camera or a mobile computer. As an illustration, I’m writing this article on my ‘phone’ while sitting on a beach on a Greek island.
5G needs that new spectrum to effectively create a data network rather than a phone network. The towers are smaller and less intrusive and have a lower power that could make getting permission to install them easier. But because of this they will need to be closer together and so there will be more of them, and the presence of these towers is likely to resemble a prevalence of surveillance cameras. Small, unobtrusive but everywhere.
While there is little need, or even opportunity, to stop 5G becoming the norm, we should be mindful of, and perhaps even challenge, what it will allow. There is a range of companies that manufacture the hardware to enable the new 5G networks, with the likes of Nokia (remember them) one of the first to demonstrate the potential.
However, the dominant supplier of network equipment, certainly for South African networks, is Huawei. The products and price are excellent, but the concern is more on what such dependence might mean, given China’s approach to privacy and a willingness to regulate access.
There is not enough evidence to prove that China can use Huawei products for intercepting private communications, as some countries like the US suspect, but it does not mean that intelligence agencies including our own won’t perhaps be tempted to try.
Spying aside, the opportunity to track you would not even require covert access to network hardware. CCTV cameras and your GPS location software can track and find you anywhere. Facial recognition does not need to know who you are to follow you. One public post with a picture on a social network and you are a marked person.
China’s willingness and ability to do this could see it being offered as a solution for crime in South Africa, but it will do more than identify those who do wrong and give authorities and some companies access to know what you are doing and where all the time. The benefits outweigh the downside, but we should not believe there is no real risk to privacy and the potential for abuse.
An informed choice can avoid most of the pitfalls of the first issue, while the second might be more difficult to avoid. This new network could replace the current mobile networks and, for home and personal use, become the only network. Autonomous cars and other Internet-enabled devices will migrate and use this network, but should something cause the network to fail it would leave most of us high and dry.
This makes it a target for those wanting to do harm. Not easy to do, because the network is so distributed, but that doesn’t mean some people won’t try. A further implication of the much broader distribution and frequencies used could affect the accuracy of weather forecasting. 5G won’t affect the weather directly, but our current method of measuring atmospheric water vapour from weather satellites measures the signal in the same range as 5G, which will create interference.
A solution is still being worked on to limit the impact. Access to the improved network will also take time and be rolled out in most economically active areas first, but this is likely to sustain, if not widen, the technology gap between rich and poor. And it’s something that should be taken into account in South Africa.
Like all new technology, the potential benefits might obscure the potential risks initially and, as they tend to be so complex,
few of us actually understand the pros and cons. Hopefully, you can appreciate a little more about the remarkable opportunities 5G presents but also the implications. Technology, like all tools, is neither good nor bad, it depends entirely on how we choose to use it.