Next week I’ll be at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, where much of the conversation will be focused on 5G, the next generation of mobile networks. Already the talk is in superlatives: the newest; the fastest; the lowest latency; the most world-changing and future-enabling. All of that is true and I want to peel back the layer of tech-talk and offer a view on exactly what we expect to be solving for.
The naming convention is familiar but the experience will be anything but—5G will change the world in terms of network speeds, reliability, and latency when it is rolled out from around 2019/2020.
To understand just how big a change, it is useful to have a sense for how networks have evolved over the past 30 years. 1G – the first-generation – in the mid-80’s was basic voice on an analogue network.
Like so many first-generation technologies, it was not always reliable and, with transfer speeds of less than 10 kbps, it was not particularly fast either.
But what it lacked in speed and reliability it more than made up for in popularity; early industry forecasts that there might be a market for fewer than a million mobile phones worldwide by 2000 missed the mark – there were around 110 million by that time!
Next came 2G, which combined talk and text, and then 3G, which linked wireless connectivity with digital networks and made internet access possible on a mobile phone. Then 4G took it a step further with higher speeds and lower latencies that improved video viewing and opened the door to the early stages of the Internet of Things.
When you think about the progression from 1G to 4G, it is easy to think the primary change has been speed.
The step up to 5G will mean more speed, but 5G is much more than just faster speeds. It will also underpin the coming of age of the Internet of Things, billions of connected devices that will enable a fully connected and interactive world, which includes new possibilities in areas such as fully connected homes, offices and factories, autonomous vehicles and remote health care.
What are we solving for?
To make all that possible, network operators (including Telstra) are primarily solving for three things.
The first is size. The 5G network is being designed to cater for many billions of connections. To give a sense for the scale, while 4G can achieve several thousand connections within each cell, meeting the future demands of the Internet of Things will mean being able to provide connectivity to millions of ‘things’ in each cell. That is because in our future connected lives, virtually everything that can be connected will be connected and there are predictions that as many as 50 billion devices and systems will be connected worldwide by 2020.
The second thing we are solving for is latency, which is the amount of time it takes between a request for data being sent from a device to the moment that data is returned. Latency is the key to applications like autonomous vehicles, which will require latency much lower than current 4G networks can offer.
Why? Because an autonomous vehicle on a 4G network travelling at 100 km/h will continue to travel 1.4 meters from the time it detects a hazard to the time it reacts because of latency in the network. That doesn’t sound like much, but it can be the difference between life and death. On the 5G network that same vehicle will travel less than 3cm between the time a hazard is detected and when the brakes go on, quicker in many cases than human reflexes.
The third thing we are solving for is bandwidth. To cope with the increased demand for video, 4G had to be 10 times faster than 3G. 5G will be at least 10 times faster than 4G and be better at maintaining those speeds consistently. That is particularly important as demand for video shifts to 4K standard. In practical terms it means a HD movie that would have taken 70 minutes to download on 3G and seven minutes to download on 4G will take a handful of seconds on 5G.
While there are other complex issues to be solved before 5G is rolled out (not least the setting of globally consistent standards, work that Telstra is already involved in) fundamentally solving these three things really opens the door to the Internet of Things and an extraordinary connected future.
What might that future look like?
It is a (very near) future in which so many things are possible.
What if entire transport systems were managed and synchronised to the real-time movement of vehicles and passengers?
What if livestock and crops were managed based on their individual locations and linked, tracked and managed based on precise data on local weather patterns, soil moisture and nutrients?
What if fleets of drones could be used to deliver parcels, search for lost bushwalkers, rescue swimmers in danger, support emergency services, and deliver high-quality live video for news and surveillance?
What if all cars and trucks were autonomous and used sophisticated sensors, super-low signal latency and ultra-reliable networks to interact with roads, traffic signals and other vehicles around them, making the roads not just safer but more efficient?
What if virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) – emerging technologies already with us today and popular particularly in gaming – became mainstream and fully mobile and available everywhere.
And what if that technology could be configured to perform precise telemedicine procedures because network latency was so low that precise movements by a doctor in one place was replicated in real time by a robot on a patient in another place across town, across a continent or on the other side of the world?
And what if manufacturing and supply chain management became a complex, connected system, capable of learning in real time, effectively self-aware and capable of delivering incredible gains in efficiency and productivity?
What we know – and what we don’t know
These are just a few of the things we know we can make possible, things we are solving for right now. But what is just as relevant in any conversation about 5G is that there are many uses we have not yet imagined because if one thing has characterised the convergence between technology and telecommunications, it is that time and again we have been surprised by the creativity, innovation and entrepreneurialism it stimulates.
With 5G, what we can imagine it can do is likely nothing compared with what it will actually end up doing because in a way 5G, like the future itself, is inventing itself.
Everything will change – except one thing
There is no doubt the things we will see at the Mobile World Congress next week will confirm that incredible change is coming, because the level of innovation at the interface between technology and telecommunications is so extraordinary.
But our imagination of the future digital world is limited – we know it will be super connected, super intelligent and super disruptive to every business model and norm, except one.
In the future world, just as in this world, the customer will always be the centre of everything. In that context, the one thing that is more important than ever for every business is to find lots of ways to interact with your customers – because they will always know what will make a difference better than you.
They know what technology means in the real world and how to turn it into something that adds value in their lives and profit and growth to their businesses.
For businesses like Telstra, that means our technology and our network engineering has to be world-leading but we also need to obsess about how our products and services work in the hands of our customers and what the experience is for them.
That obsession requires skill, commitment and perspective to see beyond how customers are using the technology and instead look at what they might use it for.
The merger of technology and telecommunications is more than just a convergence; it is enabling the purpose of objects to be completely redefined and, by extension, every market and every experience.
This post originally appeared on Linkedin.