What if the volume of traffic on your local roads increased tenfold overnight? It would be gridlocked. That is the sort of increase we expect on telecommunication networks over the next few years as data volumes radically increase. Here is how we are preparing to make sure we continue to provide customers with the best network experience.

A set of technologies come straight to mind when I think about the future.

A ubiquitous Internet of Things. Autonomous vehicles. Virtual and augmented reality. Smarter smartphones. Artificial intelligence. Machine learning. Technology that creates personalised customer experiences that bring simplicity instead of added complexity.

All of these technologies not only exist today, they are fast becoming mainstream.

All of these technologies have already signaled just how profoundly they will change our world.

And all of these technologies rely on the quality of the underlying telecommunication networks.

There is virtually no technology innovation that is happening today that does not depend on connectivity and being networked. As a consequence, the volume of data going across global telecommunications networks will increase dramatically over the next few years. Estimates of a tenfold increase in global mobile IP traffic between 2015 and 2020 will outstrip the ability of today’s networks to cope with the number of devices, data volumes and demands for speed. It’s a challenge that is driving the development of a completely new type of network.

Robust and reliable

For most people, telecommunications networks are largely out of sight and out of mind. Mobile towers dot the landscape, but otherwise the network is mostly invisible. Behind the scenes though, hundreds of billions of dollars have been invested globally over many years to carefully create something incredible. To understand just how incredible, it is useful to know a little of how telecommunications networks actually function.

Let’s take a simple example, taking and sharing a photo on a Smartphone, something we all do almost every day. Before you take your phone out of your pocket and turn it on, it has already been listening to signals from mobile towers around you, quietly making sure you are tuned to the strongest signal. When you switch your phone on it automatically shares a secret key with your mobile providers’ authentication system, identifies who you are and gives you access if your credentials are in order.

Taking a photo and posting it to a photo sharing site such as Instagram, only takes a couple of seconds, but on the network—behind the scenes—a flood of activity is going on. The mobile tower your phone was listening to might have been busily serving hundreds of other users but it takes careful notice when it gets a message from your phone that you have some data you want to send.

Before your phone can send the photo it needs the IP address of where it is going. To get this, your phone asks the network to find and provide the address of the nearest computer server of the photo sharing site. The network responds by setting up a “pipe” through the network and into the internet for you. It allocates your phone some air time. Your photo is now broken down into packets of data which start to be sent from your phone over radio waves to the mobile tower. From the mobile tower these packets then travel down fibre optic cables at the base of the mobile tower into the core network. Yes, virtually every Telstra mobile tower you see is connected by a fibre optic cable to the core network.

Other towers around you also take an interest in case you move to an area where they might offer a better signal. If that happens your connection will be passed seamlessly to a new mobile tower as they work out which is better able to serve you.

Dozens of switches and routers begin finding a path from your phone to that server (which can be anywhere in the world) and your data is passed along. As the data is being sent, the network and your phone are continually adjusting things to keep you connected. The signal power is adjusted thousands of times per second.

Finally the packets of data that comprise your photo are reassembled and are stored and shared for eternity. Job done. The pipe that was so carefully set up disappears and your phone goes back to listening quietly to the network until you are ready to upload another photo or do something else.

All of that happens in the blink of an eye.

And when you consider 2.5 trillion photos were taken and stored online in 2016, you get a sense for its utility and capability, to say nothing of the myriad of other things the network also does.

The simplicity and immediacy of being able to connect is in contrast to the complexity and scale of the infrastructure that makes it possible. At Telstra, we have created 5,000 exchanges, more than 200,000 routers, 8,600 mobile towers, almost 250,000 kms of fibre optic cable with another 400,000 kms of sub-sea cable connectivity to the rest of the world, as well as 58 data centres. This enables our customers to make, on average, 55 million calls and 356 million data connections every day.

Evolution will give way to revolution

None of the capabilities of today’s 3G and 4G networks are accidental. Development and investment has been constant and technical evolution rapid. 1G – the first generation – in the mid-80s was basic voice on an analogue network. Next came 2G in the early 90s that combined talk and text, then 3G linking wireless connectivity with digital networks to make internet access possible on a mobile phone. 4G took it a step further with higher speeds and lower latencies that improve video viewing.

Until now, network development has largely been evolutionary but the next generation – 5G – will be revolutionary. And it needs to be because while 1G, 2G, 3G and 4G were primarily about voice and then data, 5G will be about everything and the Internet of (billions of) Things.

The best way to understand 5G is to realise that it is more than just a faster, better and more efficient network for mobile phones. What sets 5G apart from earlier generations is its ability to respond to signals almost instantaneously. The latency (the sometimes frustrating lag between a request for data being sent and the data being received) on a 5G level is reduced to insignificant levels. On an older 3G phone, latency was around 100 milliseconds. Ten years of development and investment meant 4G latency was down to 30 milliseconds. With 5G though, typical latency will be as little as 4 milliseconds and may go as low as 1 millisecond for ultra-critical IoT applications.

While 1G, 2G, 3G and 4G were primarily about voice and then data, 5G will be about everything and the Internet of (billions of) Things.

Why does that matter? It matters because while we may be able to put up with one tenth of a second delay when sending a photo – that length of delay will not work in the emerging body of applications requiring virtually instant response times. For example self-driving cars will need to be able to react almost instantly to obstacles and traffic directions to be able to safely navigate autonomously through busy traffic. Minimal delay means doctors will be able to perform surgery remotely. It means sensor-laden houses and factories, smart electricity grids and other infrastructure will make adjustments without human intervention and deliver huge efficiencies and cost savings. It means conversations in foreign languages will be able to be translated instantaneously. It means things we have not even dreamt of yet. And most of all, it means the importance, reliability and capability of telecommunication networks – which will make all of this possible – will never have been more important.

Planning for an unknown future

What is really interesting about planning and building a 5G network (which we will have operational in Australia by 2019/20) is that the full range of opportunities will not be clear when the networks are launched. They will evolve with the market and with technology advances. We know where we have come from, we know where we are (and certainly how to get your photos quickly to your photo sharing sites) but we have no real idea what types of things the network will enable in the future. Because with 5G what we can imagine it will do is likely nothing compared with what it will actually end up doing. In that way 5G, like the future, is inventing itself.

If you want to learn more about the types of work you can do in technology at Telstra you’re already in the right place.