How 5G mobile will change digital, and not just by making phones faster

While fifth-generation networking will deliver instant SMS and video and lightning-fast movie downloads for consumers, the biggest beneficiaries of superfast data speeds will be robots, self-driving cars and drones

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 March, 2016, 11:36am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 March, 2016, 5:02pm

How fast is your phone? Although it’s not likely to be available until around 2020, fifth-generation networking is already the hottest mobile technology topic. With promises of speeds of up to a gigabit per second, it will be up to 100 times faster than 4G networking, which is now about four years old in Hong Kong.

But do we really need it? For must of us, the answer is no. But from autonomous cars and “cloud robots” to smart cities and even remote surgical procedures, 5G can and will change how the digital world works – and massively expand it.

READ MORE: China will be at front of global pack for launch of 5G networks by 2020, says telecoms giant ZTE

The most obvious advantage of 5G will be the ability to share, stream or download “4K” quality Ultra HD videos (which are about four times more detailed than HD) to watch on a smartphone, a standard the latest flagship phones can already film in. That includes the Apple iPhone 6s, Samsung Galaxy S7 and LG G5.

Tech giant Ericsson forecasts that video will account for 80 per cent of all mobile data traffic by 2021, thanks to developments in virtual reality and increases in the quality of on-demand TV programmes and films delivered by services such as Netflix (video accounts for about 64 per cent now), and 5G networking will help cope with that growth. The company’s president and chief executive Hans Vestberg last month showed off a 5G chip during his keynote speech on the topic at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

READ MORE: Hongkongers can expect streamed 4G movies on their phones in 2016 as HKT vows its 4.5G network will be ready

With data speeds of a gigabit per second, you could download a TV show in less than three seconds.

“Everyone is using their smartphones and the internet, so we need 5G for capacity, and people need more speed for 4K video,” says Daisuke Kurita, researcher for the 5G Radio Access Network Research Group at mobile network operator NTT DoCoMo in Japan.

There are some innovations around 5G smartphones and richer media; Intel has shown how 5G enables the broadcast onto the web of bandwidth-hungry 360-degree videos. Neither that nor faster video downloads is likely to persuade many to upgrade their phone package, but the tech industry is nevertheless going crazy about 5G.

Intel, Qualcomm, Samsung, AT&T, T-Mobile, Ericsson, Nokia, SK Telecom, NTT Docomo, Cisco, Vodafone and China Mobile are all launching 5G trials or working on prototypes this year. The reason isn’t to help people on phones, but to help things communicate much faster.

“When you download faster, it’s better, but there’s something that few people talk about that’s just as important, and that’s latency – the time it takes for a communication to start, stop and then start again,” says Ralph de la Vega, vice chairman of AT&T Inc. and chief executive of AT&T Business and AT&T International. 

“That exchange of information is critically important for autonomous cars,” he adds, giving the example of how quickly a “driverless” car would need to respond to a red light, or a exchange data with a nearby vehicle to help avoid a collision. “It’s a perfect use-case for 5G,” says de la Vega.

While self-driving cars may sound scary at first, they are, in theory, much more safe statistically (about 95 per cent of accidents are caused by human error), but we don’t yet have the communications technology to make the tech a reliable reality.

Autonomous cars that can communicate with each other about their exact position on the road will be less likely to crash than human-driven vehicles. They’ll swap live video feeds of their cameras’ different perspectives on road conditions, and use image detection technology to identify each other, adjusting their speed safely with superhuman reactions.

Given a global communications protocol, they might even communicate with pedestrians’ phones or wearable devices, and swerve out of the way if they step into the road.

However, all that complex proximity communication needs to be exchanged in hyper-real time – and 4G just isn’t going to cut it. Send an SMS on a 4G network and it will take at least 40 milliseconds, but 5G promises to reduce that to just a single millisecond.

However, autonomous car communications need to take the highest priority on a 5G network; at no point can a car’s 5G connection be slowed down by a passenger downloading a 4K movie on their phone, for instance. The bandwidth needs to be big enough to ensure there’s never a clash.

Once the car can communicate with other vehicles and the infrastructure around it, you can have smart traffic lights
Dererk Aberle, Qualcomm

Autonomous cars aren’t just about safety, but efficiency; putting 5G into cars could also help reduce traffic congestion.

“Once the car can communicate with other vehicles and the infrastructure around it, you can have smart traffic lights,” says Derek Aberle, president at phone chip-maker Qualcomm.

“It can adjust in real time the timing of the traffic lights, while the ability to communicate car-to-car will mean that on the highway people speed up and slow down – you can have a standard set of protocols to allow traffic to move much more freely.”

If the future 5G network is being talked up as big enough to cope with such critical infrastructure, that also includes industrial robots. It’s another area where 5G’s low latency wins the day.

“Humans can’t tell the difference between one or two milliseconds, but robots can,” say Sándor Jordan, software researcher (5G) at Nokia Bell Labs, who is working on 5G-enabled “co-operative cloud robots” for Nokia and China Mobile.

In a simulation, two robots, both connected to the cloud via 5G, snapped photos, synchronise them to the cloud, then collaborate to balance a ball on a moving platform. It all happens lightning-quick, but switch to 4G and the same system takes up to 15 seconds.

“The robots capture pictures and send them to a mobile edge cloud via 5G, and the latency is so low that you can put some intelligence in that cloud,” says Jordan, suggesting the same technology could be used in future for fully automated manufacturing, or logistics – perhaps even to keep drones steady when delivering packages.

Thanks to the low latency we will have real-time applications in health care, such as remote operations using robotics
Daisuke Kurita, NTT DoCoMo

There are three crucial technologies bound up in 5G. According to Dr Eddy Chiu, a manager with the communications technologies division at the Hong Kong Applied Science and Technology Research Institute (ASTRI), 5G includes eMBB (enhanced Mobile Broadband), mMTC (massive Machine Type Communications) and URLLC (Ultra-Reliable and Low Latency Communications).

He explains that while mMTC is for connecting up low-powered sensors in industrial machines, it’s eMBB and URLLC together that will create a real-time, interactive, tactile internet – and it could even save lives.

“Thanks to the low latency we will have real-time applications in health care, such as remote operations using robotics,” adds Kurita.

Equipment for medical examinations as well as surgical robots could be controlled remotely. Already in short supply in rural areas, doctors could be replaced by a surgical robot, or at least by a telepresence machine for remote diagnosis. Purely by making video instant, 5G could supercharge virtual reality to become a life-changing technology.

So when should Hong Kong expect superfast 5G mobile networks to become available?

“Hong Kong has been a pioneer in the adoption of new technologies like 2G, 3G and 4G,” says Chiu. “5G pre-commercial trials will take place by 2018, and it is expected that the first 5G commercial networks will be launched around 2020.”

However, despite the buzz, 5G is, as of now, little more than a concept; it doesn’t exist yet. But there is a road map; industry-wide 5G wireless standards should be in place within a couple of years. Only then can an immersive, pervasive, tactile and responsive internet become a reality.