How China is using 5G to close the digital divide

By GovInsider

Five ways 5G is transforming the lives of people living in rural China.

70 percent of China’s urban population is connected to the internet, but less than 40 percent of its rural population have access, according to statistics from the China Internet Network Information Center and Worldometers. Minimal internet connection means that those in the countryside have much less access to important resources for healthcare and education.

This is where 5G comes in. 5G technology allows for faster signal transmission and greater coverage, giving more people access to faster connections. China has introduced multiple new initiatives from across the public and private sectors to solve the uneven distribution of resources in the country, including remote surgery, drone transportation and VR classrooms.

Here are five ways the 5G revolution has kickstarted in China.

1. Telemedicine

There are 10 doctors for every 1000 people in Chinese cities, but only about 4 doctors for every 1000 people in rural areas, shared Ritchie Peng, Chief Marketing Officer of the Wireless Network Product Line at Huawei. The medical services and resources that rural areas have access to pale greatly in comparison to cities, but China is working to close the gap with 5G.

Hospitals in China are trialing remote diagnosis and surgery, for instance. Doctors in one hospital are now able to consult with others who may have greater expertise in a specific area. This can all be done in real time through live broadcasts of the patient’s condition. Doctors will soon be able to perform surgery remotely on patients who are miles away.

Doctors in the Third People’s Hospital of Chengdu are using remote ultrasound to diagnose patients living outside the city. Zhou Yang, the Hospital’s Assistant Head Doctor explained that ultrasound is the most convenient and effective method of cross-distance checking on patients. “There is no lag time at all in the discussion between doctors. We’ve been wanting to do this for a while, but we could only do it now because of 5G technology,” explained Zhou at Huawei’s Asia-Pacific Innovation Day 2019.

2. Drone transportation

In late 2017, China introduced the world’s first online drone transportation system for medical supplies. Hospitals anywhere in the country can choose the blood type and amount of blood they need online, and have it delivered within 30 minutes - a vast improvement from the four and a half hours it took before drones.

One in four women who die in childbirth die from loss of blood, shared Yang. It is crucial for hospitals to maintain a steady blood supply so that patients can receive transfusions in the shortest time possible. But storage can be tricky, since blood has a short shelf life and there are various blood types to account for. Transportation can also be costly, since it can only be transported in small amounts. Road conditions can stand in the way of patients and the blood they need as well: rural areas are often less well connected and many Chinese cities suffer from congested roads.

“The last 10 years have seen a dramatic change in our airspace,” shared Yang Junwei, Project Head of Drones at the World Economic Forum. “Better connectivity, 5G technology and AR/VR technology have made airplanes more intelligent and our skies safer. We used to see our skies with radar, but now we can use 3D monitoring.” This has expanded the possibilities within the airspace, and one notable application is in the use of drones in delivering medical supplies.

3. Education

The much higher level of connectivity that 5G brings is eliminating geographical disadvantages for students across the country. Children in rural areas often have to travel long distances to schools and rural schools may not have access to the same kinds of resources as schools within the city. GSMA, a global mobile network operator, has connected the mountainous region of Sichuan with 5G. “This has given about 30 local children access to the best educational resources available,” said Chen Sihan Bo, Head of Greater China and Head of Asia at GSMA.

Not only that, 5G’s better connectivity and speed has made VR/AR technology and HD video more accessible. Schools in China are now tapping 5G to provide immersive and interactive learning experiences for students. Chengdu No. 7 High School has rolled out livestreamed lessons using virtual reality. Paotong Shu school, a prestigious school in Chengdu, is sharing its classes with students in Liangshan, a poorer region in Sichuan, through a 5G VR classroom.

4. “Connected yaks”

Lost yaks are a thing of the past for herders in the mountains of Sichuan province. China Telecom and GSMA have “connected” yaks so herders can track their locations. Herders can also monitor the health of individual yaks with sensors and give them medical attention as soon as possible. Having more, longer-living yaks greatly increased the economic gains of herders, ensuring that those in rural regions are less vulnerable to unpredictability. This is part of GSMA’s efforts to attain the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, said Chen.

5. Disaster relief

During the recent Changning earthquake in Yibin, Sichuan, hospitals activated 5G ambulances so patient treatment could begin even before the patient reached the doctors. The ambulances, which support live video consultations, allowed doctors in the hospital to advise the medical team on the best way to help patients while they were still on the road. The medical team could also transfer patient data to hospitals in real-time, cutting down the time spent on administrative processes.

As of July 2019, 35 Chinese provincial governments have established policies to boost the uptake of 5G technology, including Beijing, Shanghai, Henan and Guangdong provinces. Yet, this is only the first step. Huawei, a global leader in 5G technology, is embarking on a global initiative to “narrow the digital divide that exists” between cities and rural areas, said Andrew Williamson, Vice President of Market Insights, Public Affairs and Communications Department, Huawei. The goal is to connect more than 500 million people around the world by 2025.

5G has enabled rural regions in China to catch up, particularly in the areas of healthcare and education. Greater connectivity and faster signals have made things like remote diagnosis, drone transportation and VR classrooms possible. And there are even more initiatives in the works. “5G is here, but we have to continue finding and exploring unknowns,” said Chen. Indeed, China is making the most out of 5G to close the digital divide between the city and rural areas.