IS 5G THE GAME-CHANGER IT WAS MEANT TO BE?

It all started around August last year. One of the most popular YouTubers in the world, MKBHD showed a teaser about 5G speeds on his brand-new flagship. That video exploded. Over the next few days, every mainstream tech YouTuber and every major news outlet started covering it. It was suddenly this cool buzzword that you hear everyone talking about. Device OEMs started offering 5G spinoffs of their flagship devices that are typically several hundreds of dollars more than your so-called ‘regular’ flagships.

Youtuber Marques Brownlee showcases 5G speeds on his smartphone. Courtesy: Marques Brownlee (https://www.youtube.com/user/marquesbrownlee)

Fast forward six months, the world is battling a global pandemic and the world stand divided on 5G.

3GPP’s official 5G logo

But first, what is 5G? 5G is the fifth-generation technology standard in the telecommunication industry. 5G is the successor to widely-adopted 4G networks that provide connectivity to most current cellphones. These networks will have greater bandwidth, giving higher download speeds up to 10 gigabits per second (well, at least theoretically). For reference, you can download and install PUBG in under two and a half minutes, it’s that fast. Due to the increased bandwidth and the promised low-latency, these new networks are will not just serve cellphones but also make new applications possible in the internet of things (IoT) and virtual reality technology spheres. The high data rates and low latency are touted to provide next-generation mission-critical applications like remote-control of critical infrastructure, vehicles and medical procedures and ultimately build up a massive network of the embedded sensor.

Qualcom’s 5G vision. Courtesy: Qualcomm

And how does it achieve the increase in bandwidth and low-latency? The increased speeds are achieved by using higher-frequency radio waves than the ones that are currently deployed in 4G technology. But if it was just increasing the frequency to achieve higher data speeds then we haven’t done it earlier? After all, we have come a long way from the era of analog communication. This is where things start to get dicey. You see, like all things good, increasing the frequency comes at a cost. This increased frequency severely affects the range. The high-speed millimetre wave (mmWave) of 5G has a range of approximately 1000 feet (approximately 300 meters), which is less than 2% of 4G’s range of 10 miles (approximately 16 km). The building penetration for the mmWave is also surprisingly low. For instance, the 5G node has to be in your line of sight to be able to latch onto the 5G signal and putting anything between your phone and the node, be it an obstacle such as a tree, an umbrella or even bodies for example sake, will make your signal fall back to 4G.

5G Network deployment. Courtesy: Qualcomm

Then, how do you create a 5G network that covers an entire country? Unfortunately, there is no tried-and-tested approach to this problem. Network carriers like US’s Verizon and T-Mobile use a brute-force approach: deploy 5G nodes left, right and centre so that your device switches signals from one node to the other as soon as it drops the signal. This approach, however, has a pretty big flaw. It would be very expensive for the carrier to cover every block with 5G nodes, not to mention the time it would take to deploy it. There’s also the argument about how will people react to being covered by nodes everywhere. Recently, dozens of cellphone towers and equipment boxes have been set aflame by people in the UK who believe 5G technology is helping to spread the coronavirus.

Then there’s the political angle. Countries like the US and its allies India, UK and Australia and others, are supposedly barring their networks from buying network equipment from Chinese telecom giants, Huawei and ZTE, which account for about 40 per cent of the global 5G infrastructure market, which is expected to serve as the backbone for trillions of dollars’ worth of economic and industrial activity in an increasingly digital economy on grounds of National Security being an extension of the Chinese State. These countries are worried that Huawei could install so-called backdoors in its telecommunications networking equipment that would allow the Chinese government to access user data. Even though Huawei has repeatedly denied it would ever engage in such activity. Alternatives like Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung are much more expensive compared to Chinese counterparts. This spells trouble for carriers like Bharati Airtel and Vodafone-Idea, which have about 30% and 40% share of Huawei integration. Even the state-run BSNL is built mainly using ZTE equipment. Barring these Chinese OEMs might be indirectly denying these carriers to upgrade to 5G infrastructure as they might just not afford the cost of the upgrade.

Reliance Jio announces made in India sg network. Courtesy: TOI

Meanwhile, Mukesh Ambani, Asia’s richest man and the 6th wealthiest man of the world, on Reliance Industries Annual General Meet 2020, announced that Reliance Jio has designed and developed a complete 5G solution from scratch that would allow them to launch ‘world-class’ 5G service in India, a first in the country, using 100% homegrown technologies and solutions. He said that this will be ready for field deployment as soon as next year. This announcement is revolutionary in more ways than one. It shows signs that the country is moving forward to embrace a ‘digital-first’ economy and the world is starting to take notice of it.  However, to implement it in such a record time in a country as large as ours is a challenge in itself. Let us hope that 5G brings the world closer and make the world more inclusive.

References:

1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/5G

2) https://www.cnet.com/news/at-t-5g-our-tests-yield-the-wildest-speeds-yet/

3) https://www.npr.org/2020/04/19/838195056/5g-conspiracy-theories-trigger-attacks-on-cellphone-towers

4) https://indianexpress.com/article/technology/tech-news-technology/reliance-jio-to-launch-made-in-india-5g-network-mukesh-ambani-6506961/

5)https://www.financialexpress.com/industry/technology/5g-trials-modi-govt-hardens-stance-on-chinese-vendors-like-huawei-and-zte-courtesy-border-tension/2005371/

6) https://www.cnbc.com/2019/07/08/huawei-staff-and-chinese-military-have-deep-links-study-claims.html

About Author:

Sayan Maiti

Sayan is a final year Computer Science Major at College of Engineering & Management, Kolaghat. He leans towards App Development and Machine Learning. He is passionate about technology. He is also a big anime fan. When he isn’t watching YouTube or anime, he is probably gaming like there’s no tomorrow.

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