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5G: Can you feel the rush?

The promise of 5g beckons, but like many transformational technologies, the devil is in the detail.

What will 5G bring? If you’re listening to the telcos, it should be compared to a major religious event. It’s all probably good publicity, but as to who’s actually going to get the bragging rights as the new networks are rolled out is anybody’s guess. Competition among telcos is fierce, and it’s not going to be any different with the next generation of networks.

WHY ALL THE NOISE?

5G (or ImT-2020) offers true transformation. We’re talking gigabyte connection speeds, so between 1gbps to 20gbps. That means large files, such as Hd films, can be downloaded in seconds. It will also truly unlock streaming media, holographic video and autonomous vehicles. And latency, or at least at noticeable levels, will be a thing of the past.

Cities, and the things in them – using increasing amounts of data – will become smart. Cloud services, too, will also come into their own.

And once the door has been opened, we will pour through it. The GSM Association says it expects 5G connections to pass a billion by 2025, or over 10% of total mobile connections. It’s thought that this era of connectivity will also unlock new opportunities, driven partly by increased spending on communications equipment. New capabilities will bring greater productivity, in turn bringing new employment opportunities.

At the time of writing, AT&T had just announced it had made the world’s first call using full production 5G equipment outside of a lab, and that it would be rolling out fixed broadband 5G in five more US cities to add to the 12 that already have it. Verizon, Ericsson, and T-mobile, among others, are also milking their trials for all they’re worth.

Not to be outdone, Vodacom has launched a commercial 5G service in lesotho, using its 3.5gHz spectrum to deliver fixed-wireless access to two enterprise customers. This spectrum is not available to South African customers.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

In short, it’s all going to operate in the highfrequency spectrum band, or between 30gHz and 300gHz. This spectrum is suited to the mass transference of data, but it doesn’t have the range of 4G networks, meaning that many, many more antennae are going to be needed. The antennae are also going to sprout from everywhere: buildings, lampposts and traffic lights.

It’s all a lot more complicated than this, of course, and is going to mean some significant retooling of the core telco networks, including software increasingly doing the jobs that hardware does today. Also expect to hear a lot about network slicing, which will allow a physical network to be separated into virtual strands.

There’s also the increase in backhaul traffic, or the network backbone, to be considered, to which a number of solutions have been proposed, such as fibre, microwave and satellite, among others.

WHEN?

Telecommunications minister Siyabonga Cwele is on record as saying it will only be in 2020 when the spectrum necessary for the fifth generation networks will be made available to local telcos. He said at the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) Telecom world 2018 conference in durban that the standards first needed to be agreed upon by the ITU, which is slated for discussion at the world radio Congress in late 2019. The ITU is also hoping that there can be some kind of globally harmonised spectrum deal, which it says will minimise radio interference near borders and make international roaming simpler. But given the number of moving parts of the global bureaucracy, there are probably going to be some delays.

A WORD OF CAUSION

The ITU also released a report in durban, in which it said high levels of investment would be needed for the new networks. It estimates the cost of deploying a small cell-ready network, provided there’s already a commercially viable fibre backhaul available, to be in the neighbourhood of R100 million for a small city, to R830 million for a larger one. There’s less of a business case for rural areas, which it said had the potential to widen the digital divide.

The report, ‘Setting the Scene for 5G: Opportunities and Challenges’, says ‘care must be taken in establishing the commercial case and whether 5G is a real priority for the economy’. The report adds: “A 5G investment must be backed by a sound investment case.”
Wise words, and ones that it’s hoped are not forgotten in the mad rush to the future.

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