Is 5G all it’s cracked up to be?

Read time 9min 10sec
Samantha Naidoo
Samantha Naidoo

First-generation wireless brought us voice, the next generation gave us text, and 3G handed us simple, mobile computing. Then came 4G, adding faster speeds, and a plethora of apps to improve our home and business lives. 5G opens the door to unprecedented speeds, which will help us download movies in a matter of seconds, enable self-driving cars, and much, much more, changing the stakes for businesses in every sector.

In short, 5G will bring us more of everything, says Roger Hislop, chairperson of the IoT Industry Council of South Africa (IOTIC). “Higher bandwidth, better latency, more concurrent sessions, greater control of network resources. How this ‘more of everything’ will translate into user benefits is somewhat debatable, and many of the use cases are extremely speculative, even fanciful. The bottom line is ‘bigger, better, faster, more’, but it would be wise to be a little cautious in believing the hype; 5G is an evolution of the existing mobile standards, not magic, and it’s certainly not the only radio communications technology out there.”

Samantha Naidoo, Telco Industry Value advisor at SAP Africa, adds that the ‘always on’ economy has never been more ready for what 5G has to offer with its promise of speeds 20 times faster than traditional uptake, and a quality of service that will allow organisations to introduce AI, IoT and other rich, data-enabled platforms into their business models. “With 5G, businesses will be able to elevate and differentiate what they deliver in terms of customer experience – whether it is through e-commerce platforms, interactive conversational AI (chatbots), as well as other technology – to keep them competitive. Particularly in the face of Covid-19, where the bulk of the workforce is home-based, it’s never been more essential to keep productivity high with fast speed and low latency.”

But is it all it’s cracked up to be? While it’s true that 5G networks will provide both businesses and consumers with great mobile advancements, its technological flaws cannot be overlooked, says Jim Holland, regional director for Africa, Lenovo Datacentre Group. “For example, 5G cannot operate seamlessly through simple obstructions like walls, buildings or trees. These types of obstructions will either block, disrupt or absorb the high-frequency signals coming from the network, making it impossible for the network to operate efficiently. Other flaws include settlement restrictions and high rollout costs. Therefore, urban settlements and big cities have a greater opportunity to experience 5G network compared to those within informal settlements due to infrastructure necessities and cellular operation costs. Stronger economies like the UK and the US are more likely to experience faster 5G advancements compared to developing countries.”

Regulatory constraints

The strength of the 5G signal will be significantly lower than 4G because the technology will be provided at higher frequencies. Its inability to penetrate through obstacles means it will be affected by different materials, and even rain and heavy fog, adds Sabelo Dlamini, senior research and consulting manager at IDC SA. “Additionally, spectrum is one of the key challenges for 5G. Because 5G is being offered in different frequency bands, this has complicated some spectrum planning and offerings in the different regions, with some of the spectrum overlapping with C-band satellite offerings.”

In South Africa, the regulatory constraints of bidding for available spectrum are critical factors hindering 5G accessibility in the country, says Naidoo. Over and above that, the same constraints applied to 4G network-reach will be in effect for 5G as well, demanding high initial capital expenditure from telcos as they invest in the deployment of more signal masts and towers. This means we expect to see an increase in interconnect agreements between the various players.

Many of the use cases are extremely speculative, like self-driving cars, which assume magical infinitely pervasive, infinitely reliable mobile connection.

Roger Hislop, IOTIC

So which industries are set to benefit the most from 5G, and what kinds of use cases will it enable? Naidoo says there are four sectors that stand out: media and entertainment; manufacturing; health; and the high-tech and telco segment. “First, growth in the media entertainment industry will explode as faster network speeds increase demand for content, driving commoditisation as well as revenues. In terms of manufacturing, Marvell’s recent acquisition of Inphi in a $10 billion cash-and-stock deal, to accelerate its cloud and 5G infrastructure, will provide it with a competitive edge through additional connectivity components to link Marvell's 5G infrastructure baseband products from the antenna radio unit to the optical backhaul. In the health sector, Market Research Future reports that the telemedicine market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 16.5% from 2017 to 2023, but this will require 5G accessibility in both urban and rural areas in order to enable innovative technologies like Healthcare IoT, remote patient monitoring, faster upload of medical MRIs and PET scans, as well as robotic surgery.

“Right now, it’s mostly the manufacturers of 5G equipment that are set to benefit,” says Hislop. “Many of the use cases are extremely speculative, like self-driving cars, which assumes magical infinitely pervasive, infinitely reliable mobile connection. The main initial benefit will be for ISPs to offer higher speed fixed wireless services, followed by automation and instrumentation use cases, especially for IoT-capability retrofitting, where installation of wireless devices is advantageous. This, however, is predicated on mobile operators prioritising IoT-centric services, rather than trying to give an iPhone user a five-second full-length movie download capability. Many use cases that require high reliability such as telemedicine are still much more likely to be done over fibre.”

Resource management

Speaking of the role 5G has to play in delivering IoT, Hislop believes that if it delivers as promised, 5G could be a massive catalyst for the embrace of IoT. “At its heart, IoT is small, low-power devices connected over a radio network to the cloud to give organisations real-world, real-time visibility into their people, processes, and things. A reliable radio network that is pervasive across the whole country is the key to 5G having a real impact on IoT. We already have networks like Sigfox (operated in South Africa by Sqwidnet) and LoRaWAN, and we have old 2G technology that still does the job, but other ‘national coverage’ connectivity options would be invaluable, especially as we look to higher bandwidth or real-time use cases in IoT. Narrow Band IoT (NB-IoT) was meant to be this – it’s part of the LTE standard, but it’s been something of a fiasco, with slow, spotty rollout. A fundamental problem with 4G is resource management – being able to carve up your network to provide an acceptable quality of service to voice, data, video users, as well as to low bandwidth but mission-critical users. 5G largely fixes this.

“The challenge for mobile operators is now to change their business models to make their IoT-centric technologies cost-competitive, to bring to market IoT-friendly service offerings, and do away with their baked-into-the-DNA compulsion to burn their customers with costs like SIM fees and minimum billing increments. The IoT Council is actively encouraging South Africa’s mobile operators to cultivate IoT-centric services for 5G because IoT provides genuine use cases that offer genuine value to South African organisations that far outstrip the glamorous, but fanciful use cases like holographic video, virtual reality, and self-driving cars.”

If 5G is so much faster and more reliable than WiFi, is it set to replace it?

“Absolutely not,” says Hislop. “The technologies are in many ways complementary, and WiFi 6 is much more suitable for local area connectivity in the home or office. There’s always a space for private radio networks, operated and controlled by you.”

In South Africa, the regulatory constraints of bidding for available spectrum are critical factors hindering 5G accessibility in the country.

Samantha Naidoo, SAP Africa

According to Dlamini, the two technologies will work hand-in-hand: WiFi 6 and 5G offer the same improved capabilities. “They are expected to co-exist to support different use cases. WiFi 6 will continue to be the access choice for indoor networks, while 5G is expected to be the designated choice for outdoor networks.”

Adds Holland: “Aside from these two innovations gaining effectiveness and efficiency over the decades, there’s still something distinctively different about 5G and WiFi 6. Yes, both innovations have been built on a history of orthogonal frequency division multiple access (OFDMA) technology, what worked well, what did not and some similar connectivity challenges. However, spectrum usages like WiFi 6’s 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequency bands and 5G’s 3.5 GHz and sub-6 GHz frequency bands showcase the limitations and advancements each technology type has. Yet, WiFi 6 promotes better network flexibility while 5G promotes better network stability. In summary, the two technologies complement each other. It’s unlikely that either 5G or WiFi 6 can address the increasing demands for wireless alone. They are two sides of the same coin, ironically depending on one another for new innovations and hypotheses.”

As 5G mobile networks are being switched on in cities around the world, questions are being raised about whether the new technology poses health risks. So what are the concerns, and is there any evidence to back them up?

Dlamini says while there have been many rumours around 5G health risks, there hasn’t been any proven information to back the theories up.

Naidoo adds that for the last 20 years, there has been a concern that radio frequency radiation could damage DNA, resulting in cancers, premature ageing, and other metabolic diseases. “The World Health organisation (WHO) is presently carrying out a health risk assessment from exposure to radio frequencies, including 5G, and it will be publishing results by 2022. Thus far, it hasn’t reported any causal link between wireless technologies and any adverse health effects, although only a few studies have been carried out at the frequencies to be used by 5G. However, having said that, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Standards Association says there is no scientifically validated evidence that chronic exposure to radio waves at frequencies between 0 and 300 GHz are connected to poor health. Currently, exposure from 5G infrastructures sits at around 3.5 GHz and is similar to exposure from existing mobile phone base stations.”

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