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What's all this fuss about 5G?

Assif Shameen
Assif Shameen8/1/2018 05:38 PM GMT+08  • 10 min read
What's all this fuss about 5G?
SINGAPORE (July 30): In late February, the South Korean ski resort of Pyeongchang hosted the 23rd Winter Olympics. Norway topped the medals table with host Korea in seventh place, despite its five golds. Yet, the main event for South Koreans wasn’t bobs
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SINGAPORE (July 30): In late February, the South Korean ski resort of Pyeongchang hosted the 23rd Winter Olympics. Norway topped the medals table with host Korea in seventh place, despite its five golds. Yet, the main event for South Koreans wasn’t bobsleigh, curling or even figure skating, but the showcasing of the world’s first-ever 5G, or fifth-generation mobile network, with all the accompanying bragging rights.

So, what’s the big deal about 5G? Think of the new generation of connectivity as an enabler for the next big leap in technology, says Sam Barker, an analyst at Juniper Research in London. Things such as driverless cars, artificial intelligence, streaming virtual reality and augmented reality services, drones, smart cities, or smart street fixtures such as street lighting, or telemedicine such as remote robotic surgery by a doctor thousands of miles away and an Internet of Things (IoT)-powered networked smart home, where your connected refrigerator will warn you that you don’t have enough milk for that second cup of coffee next morning.

While 3G and 4G were meant for consumers, 5G will focus on industries and consumers. Think of 5G as a communications platform rather than just a phone network. “5G basically will do two things,” says Ferry Grijpink, senior partner at consultancy McKinsey & Co, who covers telecomsmedia. First, it will massively increase the bandwidth or be blatantly fast. Second, it will cut down on latency, or the delay between the time a signal is sent and when it is received, so our devices connect faster within milliseconds rather than seconds as they do now. With driverless car brakes or remote telemedicine surgery, a few milliseconds can mean the difference between life and death. Moreover, with the arrival of IoT, 5G will help us connect with many different types of devices — not just smartphones, tablets, cellular-enabled smartwatches or voice-activated smart speakers but, increasingly, refrigerators, microwave ovens, washing machines and dryers that can communicate with us and each other.

5G will be both evolutionary and revolutionary, notes US investment bank Goldman Sachs in a recent report. Evolutionary in enabling mobile devices to handle more data, as the rise of video use requires more bandwidth, and revolutionary in enabling a massive IoT ecosystem, which needs larger-scale, quicker connectivity and greater reliability.

5G would be up to 100 times faster, with download speeds as fast as 20 gigabits per second (Gbps); its lower latency would allow devices to connect 10 times more quickly. Within its first five years, 5G would connect 100 times as many devices as the current 4G networks. In reality, though, top-rated 4G long-term evolution on some of the networks is already pretty fast, and initial 5G networks may only give us an experience that is more like five to 10 times faster instead of 100 times faster. In Singapore, for example, 4G LTE networks are currently among the fastest on earth, allowing downloading of a Hollywood blockbuster in 10 to 12 minutes, depending on where you are and the time of day. 5G networks will allow you to download the same movie in less than 30 seconds.

Other benefits of 5G

Still, lightning-fast speed and instant connectivity for hundreds of billions of devices are not 5G’s only attraction. Currently, telecom networks are mainly optimised for devices such as smartphones, whose batteries use a lot of power and need powerful antennae. But the 5G network will work fine even with lower-powered devices and weaker antennae, which would help lessen our obsession with ever more powerful batteries that run for days and antennae that can connect even when they are a fair distance away from routers or cell towers.

There is also the microwave element of 5G, or very fast 28GHz or 35GHz frequencies, which US carriers such as Verizon are using in their trials for fixed wireless broadband, which is emerging as a high-speed replacement for cable TV. 5G will also make device-to-device communication easier. So, instead of my Alexa-powered Amazon Echo Show speaker sending a message first to a cell tower then down to my refrigerator, the communication can be sent directly from my Echo to my connected refrigerator. And wearables such as smartwatches, which have been hobbled by lack of computing power, won’t need it because they can harness it from around the world over the internet.

Cellular communication has come a long way from the days of first-generation 1.5kg Motorola brick phones like the one Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko used in the 1987 movie Wall Street. 2G was mainly voice but allowed texting and, with the BlackBerry, email access. 3G allowed access to data and helped unleash the smartphone revolution. 4G defined broadband internet and streaming of movies on phones and tablets. “From 2G to 3G to 4G, it was very clear what the technology change was,” Grijpink tells The Edge Singapore. “In 5G, it is a lot of technological changes bunched together.”

5G is no pie in the sky. Singapore Telecommunications and Ericsson are working on a pilot 5G project in one-north in Buona Vista, which is expected to be launched before year-end. Don’t expect nationwide 5G coverage in Singapore or Malaysia until the second half of 2020 at the earliest. In the US, Verizon is working on fixed wireless for 5G, which will help it gain advantage over cable operators such as Comcast and TimeWarner Cable. Having decided not to create its own internet TV service, Verizon is also looking to use Alphabet’s YouTube TV or Apple as a streaming partner when it starts rolling out 5G.

For its part, AT&T plans to roll out 5G in 12 cities by year-end. No 3 US carrier T-Mobile is busy building out a nationwide 5G network and might actually be the first to have comprehensive coast-to-coast cove­rage by early 2020.

Long wait for 5G devices

Smartphone users like you and me are unlikely to see the super-fast download speeds of 5G networks until we can buy compatible phones that can operate on the new, higher 3.5GHz networks. Apple and Samsung Electronics Co are reported to be working on 5G handsets for release in 2020. Only China’s Huawei is reported to be ready to unveil its own 5G handset next year — although without the proper network infrastructure in place, it is unlikely that people will be rushing to buy them. Qualcomm recently introduced a 5G modem that will work only when the 5G network delivers data to your home or office at blatantly fast speeds two years from now. Last week, Qualcomm announced 5G phone antennae that will be used in devices such as iPhones and the next iteration of Galaxy phones.

How will our experience be on 5G? Frankly, most people will experience no huge difference even when they have a 5G handset running on a 5G network, Juniper Research’s Barker tells The Edge Singapore.

“If you are an advanced gamer, you might notice a difference, or if you are doing augmented reality, you will see it is so much better,” says McKinsey’s Grijpink. Yet, as 4G networks get more congested and slow, parti­cularly in cities and city centres, people will want to move to 5G networks. Over time, as networks are fully functional and more power­ful 5G handsets become available, the experience will improve.

Traditionally, the mobile phone industry has taken 10 years or so before moving to the next generation. 3G was introduced in 2002 and 2003, and 4G in 2012 or 2013. “There is still a lot of juice left in 4G,” says Grijpink. “If we start to see 5G being rolled out in 2020, and 5G maximisation is in 2021, that means it is still on schedule.”

Because of the focus on driverless cars, drones and home networking, there is a push to get some of the commercial part of 5G moving a few months earlier. But it will be at least two years before you see Americans, Singa­po­reans and Malaysians in Lower Manhattan, Raffles Place or Bangsar walking around with 5G devices.

Just because 5G is two to three years away, it doesn’t mean autonomous cars would have to wait. “Connected car features don’t depend on the 5G network,” says Pierre Ferragu, an analyst at New Street Research in New York. “Tesla introduced over-the-air updates leveraging WiFi.” Robo-taxi trials, he notes, leverage 4G, despite advanced cloud infrastructure. Cars will also use 5G for infotainment or downloading high-definition videos. Still, driverless cars, or fully autonomous vehicles, which probably won’t hit the roads until 2022 at the earliest, will operate only on 5G.

So, who will be the big winners from 5G? “The jury is still out on winners or losers,” says Grijpink. There is no real advantage for the US in winning the 5G race, he argues. 2G and 3G standards were set by Europe, and the US was a leader in 4G. With 5G, there is a fierce race not just between the US and China but also with Europe, Japan and Korea all trying to get to the finish line early even if they cannot be the first, he says.

Earlier this year, reports emerged that the White House had even toyed with the idea of a national 5G network spearheaded by the government. In March, US President Donald Trump scuttled the US$100 billion ($136.3 billion) merger between chip giants Broadcom and Qualcomm and cited US leadership in 5G technology as a key reason. At the time, Broadcom was a Singapore-based firm, though it has since relocated its legal headquarters back to the US.

In recent months, a trade war between the US and China has escalated, with both countries imposing hefty tariffs. A recent study conducted by Analysys Mason on behalf of US cellular industry trade group, the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, found that China may be just ahead of the US in the 5G race, although both countries will be ready to roll out services in 2020.

Even if China were to surge ahead of the US and roll out its 5G network a few weeks or months ahead of the US, it is unlikely to gain a huge advantage over the US, which remains the world’s most innovative economy. Nokia and Ericsson dominated 3G networks, but that did not dramatically improve the competitiveness of Finland or Sweden or, indeed, Europe.

How to get exposure to 5G

For investors, there are plenty of ways to play the hot 5G theme. You could buy into chip design firm Qualcomm, the leader in baseband communications chips. Or try one of the large cellular firms — Verizon, AT&T or T-Mobile in the US, Vodafone in the UK, Korea’s SK Telecom or Japan’s SoftBank, which through its various affiliates has a broad exposure to emerging 5G networks. Or iPhone maker Apple or operating system Android’s creator Alphabet.

Another way to get exposure to 5G is through players such as Skyworks Solutions, which provides RF chips to enable wireless connectivity in smartphones, and Crown Castle, which makes small cells that can be a key backbone of 5G infrastructure. Unlike the traditional wireless network built by base stations on towers, 5G will leverage a dense patchwork of small cells with a distributed network of data centres for signal processing, connected by fibre.

There is also Ceragon Networks, which is carving a niche as a 5G backhaul specialist. Among the losers are cable operators such as Comcast, which owns NBCUniversal and is now trying to buy European satellite media giant Sky from Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox, which is selling its non-news assets to Walt Disney.

Whether the US or China gets bragging rights for the first nationwide 5G network or Japan, Europe or Korea steals a march, the next-gene­ration communications platform is likely to be a true game changer and the real winner will be us, the users.

Assif Shameen is a technology writer based in North America

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