In the world of technology, nothing is more curious than the way in which 5G has been vilified, inadvertently stymied and virtually blocked in every step of the way since it was first discussed as a successor to 4G.
5G research started earnestly in the early 2010s and in 2014, Japan formed the 5G Mobile Forum. The International Telecommunication Union’s IMT-2020 came the next year. In 2015 Huawei presented a testbed and the US freed frequencies the subsequent year. When dozens of countries completed 5G trials in 2017, one would have thought that 5G was just around the corner. However after that the implementation has been scattered at best.
So, is 5G really that good and worth pushing? IEEE Member Ramneek Kalra is very gung-ho, “There is no doubt that the way we work is changing. Remote work could become the ‘new normal’ especially with the approaching 5G revolution. With a lower latency, the biggest impact 5G revolution will have, is increasing the speed of cellular connections. A slow and unreliable Internet connection could become a thing of the past, and people in the future might not have to rely on Wi-Fi hotspots. Additionally, with the onset of 5G, employees will be able to get work done quickly and reliably, and hence, will be more productive from anywhere at any time. With the 5G revolution, the world will be better connected than ever before”
It’s that simple as that for the common man. He needs more bandwidth on the go (as the mobile workforce mushrooms), for small businesses it could be a boon and now with the Work From Home Era taking off, 5G could well be a necessity for most struggling in the lockdown. There wasn’t that much controversy in the journey from 2G to 3G to 4G. They even managed to fit in 2.5G (GPRS) and 2.75 (EDGE) without much fuss, if you remember.
But the path from 4G to 5G was always different. Explains Amitabh Satyam, Chairman of Smart Transformations: “5G combines several new technologies with a newer set of frequencies. So, 3G to 4G upgrade was simpler as we used the same towers. 5G deployment is expected to start with deployment of new antennas closer together.” Satyam was also Head of Operations of Reliance Communications in the early days.
It doesn’t end there. Says Pravin S Bhandarkar, Founder and CEO of RtBricks, “Whenever 5G comes, what will change first is the radio. But the thing about networks is they are only as strong as their weakest link, and the much of the network will remain on a 4G back-end for some years. You will not have true user experience until you’ve done the whole upgrade.”
It’s not just the technology. There have been many other roadblocks…
1. The Indian telecom crisis: After the disruption of Reliance Jio, the Indian telecom industry has not been doing that well. The losses have been mounting as Vodafone struggles to stay alive and BSNL seems like a white elephant waiting to be rescued fully by the Indian government. Jio and AirTel are the market leaders, but the cash flow has been far from great. The entire industry doesn’t seem ready to make the giant leap. To be frank, the way it has been, we would have struggled to even go from 3G to 4G with such balance sheets. That way the Jio-Facebook must be a lifesaver for the former, but how this affects 5G remains to be seen.
Continues Satyam from his earlier comments: “The rollout in India would be expensive and slow. Extensive trials are also required. Operators must develop business models to monetize 5G investments with the offer of higher level of security, lower latency, and the control on quality of services. Regulations must support such endeavours.”
2. The Huawei Ban controversy: In 2015, Huawei had come out with first-ever “5G testbed” on the sub-6 GHz frequency band. China started whizzing ahead and other countries joined in like South Korea and Qatar. Huawei has been the world’s number one telecom supplier and would have been essential in 5G implementation around the world but was hit by the ban from the US. The US-China trade war only made matters worse. India has also had issues with Huawei in the past even though the latter joined hands with Indian operators for trials. There have been a lot of controversies related to China and surveillance when it comes to 5G networks.
3. Health and interference concerns: Another issue was that of electromagnetic interference. There were concerns that remote sensing and weather satellites would be affected. Then there have been persistent rumours of 5G being bad for health and the conspiracy theories around that are quite popular and widespread. There are small towns and cities all over the world that have banned 5G or planning to for this reason. That never happened with 3G or 4G! Adds Satyam: “These are in the realm of activism. There is no evidence of any health concerns due to higher frequencies of 5G.”
4. Lack of leadership: Europe’s CERN was at the forefront in the formation of the Internet and the UK was way ahead in a lot of research that took it forward. On most issues, Silicon Valley takes the clear leading role when it comes to implementing any technology. India became a major in IT services. But that has not been the case with 5G. While implementations have been there, no country has taken the bull by the horns and managed to inspire all other countries. Earlier it was China that was taking a clear leadership role. That was severely dented first by the Huawei controversy, then the trade war with the US and finally Covid-19.
5. The Covid-19 crisis: This brings us to the Corona Age, which has turned the world upside down. It spells bad news for 5G from each and every angle: The economy, China and the Indian telecom industry. Implementation will be even tougher now. 5G will be more capital intensive and you will need smaller and more numerous towers placed closer together. In an era of no-touch, WFH and lockdowns, how are you going to get contractors and workers to implement it all across the country and with the desired speed?
There’s another bizarre thing happening. 5G has actually being accused of creating the Covid-19 virus! It so happens that Wuhan was one of the first cities where 5G trials were held and that has led to a myriad of conspiracy theories which have been read and viewed (the conspiracy videos are elaborate) millions and millions of times. So 5G somehow created the virus or enhanced it, depending on which theory you read. It didn’t end there: People have actually gone around burning cell towers and destroying telecom equipment. There have been more than 100 such incidents in the UK alone. One newspaper reported that in one of their towns, when a woman saw workers laying optical fibre cables, she exclaimed: “When they turn this on, it’s going to kill everyone!” As expected, most of the telcos simply refused to comment on this particular controversy.
What about 5G mobiles? That’s another industry that can take off only if the networks are in place. It’s a sort of chicken and egg situation. The lockdown could last for months and some sort of partial lockdown and the economic crisis could last for a few years. It is safe to say that the world may be focussing on essentials till maybe 2021-22 and anything related to 5G maybe not classified as an essential though one could argue that it is essential to the WFH culture that has been supersized off late.
Says Rajan S Mathew, Director-General of the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI): “5G adoption and implementation in India, although ardently supported and encouraged by the government, faces many challenges. Among these are the high price for the spectrum, multiple claims on the limited spectrum being put up for auction, lack of use cases tailored for India, the lack of financial resources with incumbent operators to invest in new technology because of their deep financial distress, etc. There has now been added another woe—the Covid-19 pandemic. Globally, this has forced many countries to postpone planned 5G spectrum auctions and operators pulling back from planned investments and implementation. In India, the onset of Covid and all its attendant challenges has ensured 5G adoption will probably be now pushed back well into 2022 or even 2023.”
Another important factor as a result of Covid is the no-touch technology and maybe the need for driverless and connected cars. Damien Stephens, Associate Vice President, Mobility & IoT, Tata Communications, told us much before this whole crisis started, “Customers can potentially get everything in their car, and automakers are planning for this already today. There is high throughput capability going into vehicles and combined with 5G, this will enable cognitive-speed response times that will help to bring about autonomous vehicles. And when we don’t need to drive the vehicle anymore, we can sit and watch movies, or work, or read, or scroll through news feeds. This will impact all of us as consumers of course, but the impact on the automotive, telecoms, advertising and content/streaming industries will be immense.”
As you can see, 5G is crucial for a lot of things: Internet of Things (IoT) devices—wearable and industrial, Industry 4.0, better smart homes (connected buildings) and smart cities, logistics, shipping and fleet management… A lot of things will be left hanging. What is the solution? Can we simply leapfrog to 6G? Says Satyam: “6G is too far and we do not know what it stands for yet. So, 6G cannot be in the equation anywhere today.”
After Covid-19 we are seeing a lot of technologies getting accelerated: Collaboration tools, drones, medical technology, Artificial Intelligence, OTT networks, cloud… Ideally 5G should have been on top that list, but that doesn’t seem to be happening yet.
Much like Waiting for Godot, in technology, it’s still Waiting for 5G!