What's next in the world of wireless?

By Rachel Teng

Dr Ong Chen Hui, Assistant Chief Executive of Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority takes us on a journey through mobile communication Generations, and gives us a sneak peek past the 4G horizon.

Singapore’s Minister for Communications and Information testing 6G technologies. Image: Ministry of Communications and Information.

Most of us are ever familiar with that little ‘4G’ icon nested at the top right corner of our smartphones, magically connecting us to the Internet. But how many of us actually know what 4G actually represents, and what future generations (“G”s) of mobile communications spell for society?


According to Dr Ong Chen Hui, Assistant Chief Executive of Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), each generation of mobile communications has been demonstrated to transform lives.


“Whenever there’s better connectivity, new innovations can be imagined, created, transforming the way society communicates and exchanges or receives information,” says Ong.


Case in point, when the first mobile phone was invented in the 1980s, people could now make calls on the go. When 2G was launched about ten years later, people could send short text messages to each other, effectively replacing snail mail.


The new millennium ushered in 3G, where people could access web pages on the Internet while on the move. Today, 4G has enabled data calls, and video conferencing, as well as smartphones and all their accompanying apps.


What, then, comes after this? 5G is a particularly exciting development, and what differentiates it from its predecessors is that it doesn’t just target consumers. “This is going to be the first time that businesses will have the confidence to move their critical business applications onto the mobile network,” says Ong.


GovInsider sits down with Ong to find out the exciting new possibilities that 5G will spell for various industries in Singapore, including maritime, healthcare, education, and tourism.


From superimposed surgeries to remote controlled maritime operations


An up-and-coming field of surgery is coming to light – literally – and made possible with 5G technology. This is called holomedicine, and it will enable surgeons to superimpose CT or MRI scans onto patients’ bodies, providing real-time guidance to surgeons during live operations. 

Surgery trials using this technology are currently being conducted by the National University Health Systems. Image: NUHS.

5G technology will also have a part to play in education, heritage and tourism. “5G can support new modes of creative storytelling, such as augmented reality (AR) or mixed reality experiences. It will be possible to tell old stories about Singapore in new ways and transform the way in which we educate our people about history, as well as the way we think about tourism,” says Ong.

5G trials are being conducted at Keppel shipyard, where an engineer can use smart glasses to capture and stream real-time data to the command centre at Keppel's headquarters. Image: Demond Foo/The Straits Times.


As part of this venture, IMDA will be collaborating with Infinite Studios, a local co-producer of blockbuster movie Crazy Rich Asians, and D.ink, a mixed reality company, to deliver a “cinematic experience” on the backdrop of Marina Bay.


Third, IMDA is looking to greatly expand Singapore’s maritime capabilities using 5G and IoT devices. Using AR, many maritime operations can actually be conducted remotely, and hence, much more safely.


“Because IoT devices can feed real-time data to remote stations, supervisors and collaborators can now have access to the same kind of information without having to perform high-risk activities, such as personally scaling the heights of freight ships to conduct inspections,” says Ong.


These three use cases are the pioneer projects of a S$30 million investment in 2021 to boost industrial 5G applications, following a S$19 million investment in 2019 to encourage trials and pilots. The results so far have been encouraging, with Singapore piloting many industrial applications never seen before in Southeast Asia, says Ong.


Thinking ahead: Investing in 6G research


Beyond 5G, 6G discussions are already underway, and for good reason. Each “G” of telecommunications requires a runway of at least 10 years of global negotiations and standardisation surrounding what exactly the newest rollout will entail, says Ong. This is regulated by the standardising body 3GPP, consisting government, industrial, and academic stakeholders.


6G will be very efficient for video uploading and processing, which will unlock many doors for industries or technologies with video-heavy applications. “Some of the exciting possibilities for 6G that we’re hearing right now are things like holographic telepresence – the kind you see in Star Wars,” says Ong.


To further support the development of information and communications technologies (ICT) future communications technologies, IMDA has dedicated S$70 million into a Future Communications R&D programme (FCP). To date, FCP has awarded about 30 projects that are helping support local talent pursue research in this field.


FCP has also helped to fund Southeast Asia’s first 6G Lab, the Future Communications Connectivity Lab. Situated at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, the Lab will soon combine with SUTD’s AI Mega Centre to integrate R&D for AI and 6G.


Minister Josephine Teo launching the FCCLab. Image: Ministry of Communications and Information


“The purpose of this lab is to have a testbed infrastructure so that our researchers and industry partners can easily test and demonstrate the value proposition of their research,” says Ong.


Moving forward, IMDA seeks to support international innovation and collaboration, and will partner with the Wireless World Research Forum to organise the first WWRF Huddle.