Singapore is on track to get 5G networks by next year. It is important to understand that this is not just another upgrade from existing 4G networks. The new networks bring a fundamentally different set of capabilities; higher bandwidth is just one.
This is going to have a profound impact on how we live, work and play. Think of it as a redux of the way the Internet changed our lives when it became mainstream at the dawn of this millennium.
Singapore’s Minister of Communications and Information, S Iswaran, asserted in Parliament in May that 5G technology and the networks would constitute a critical part of Singapore’s digital economy. In other words, an important cog to drive Singapore’s Smart Nation ambition.
He said the country is “on track” to achieving the target of rolling out 5G mobile networks by 2020. The Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore (IMDA) has also said that “at least two” 5G networks will be rolled out in Singapore by next year. Another report from Channel News Asia noted that the government has earmarked $40 million to build “an open and inclusive 5G ecosystem”.
Understandably all this has created much anticipation among Singapore’s technology savvy consumers. Individual users certainly have a lot to be excited about.
What is 5G?
Typical 5G networks provide data speeds that will be up to 20 times faster than what has been achieved in the best 4-4.5G networks. The technology will also ensure that there will be extremely low latency – that is the time it takes to get a response to a signal or query that you send to another device or to a server. 5G networks will be able to offer 1-2 millisecond time lag while typical 4G networks offer around 50 millisecond time lag.
Moreover, 5G networks can support up to one million devices per square kilometre. It is important to note that these one million devices don’t necessarily have to be smartphones. It could be embedded sensors on the road, at traffic lights or on moving vehicles. Sensors that capture and transmit vital information are available today but the current networks do not support their use in such concentration and density.
The new networks will take factory automation to the next level, thanks to their low latency. Shop floors will see the more extensive use of untethered factory robots which would be able to move around the factory floor without bumping into obstacles. Industry 4.0 will boom with the use of digital technologies such as remote 3D printing and on demand manufacturing.
Similarly, drones will become safer, thanks to the low latency communications, and they are likely to be used more extensively for delivery services, eliminating the need for expensive human couriers. Very soon you could get your pizza on a drone experience.
Government services will become more accessible with far richer interfaces and real-time interaction capabilities. This will improve service delivery dramatically. Remote telemedicine will also get a major fillip, helping to cope with an aging population.
Enterprises as well as the government will be able to set up dedicated networks within a telco service provider’s overall network for secure and fast communications. This will allow for rapid roll-out of industrial IoT (Internet of Things) services as well as networks, for say, disaster recovery and specialised services like port-to-ship communications and others. These private networks will be fast, reliable and secure. Theoretically 5G allows telcos to slice and dice their network into as many private networks – called mobile virtual networks (MVN) – as they want to.
It is possible to build a ‘sensor mesh’ using 5G, which is required for autonomous vehicles. Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) transmission is important for road safety in a driverless network. For example, a vehicle could inform the ones behind it about changing road conditions, like an unexpected pot hole or a traffic diversion. It can also inform the vehicle behind it that it is in the process of braking.
When the next vehicle is only a few metres behind and moving, 5G’s low latency ensures safety in a way no current 4.5G network can. Another advantage is that the available bandwidth allows for what is know as edge computing whereby most of the processing power can be pushed to the 5G base stations which, in turn, makes information sharing and transmission faster.
A combination of virtually unlimited number of sensors (think of every traffic light as being a road safety sensor), low latency V2V communication and a centralised command and control station that monitors every vehicle on the road, finally makes mass-scale adoption of driverless vehicles feasible. Till now, the missing piece was a high capacity, super reliable communications network. 5G brings that to the table.
It should, however, be noted that a fully autonomous transport system is unlikely to happen overnight in Singapore and elsewhere but the movement towards a future commute in a driverless environment is inevitable.
So far, we’ve talked about the various possibilities that 5G will usher in and, really, there will be many more services that have not yet been even thought about. What we need to prepare for, as a society, is the disruption that these new services will cause. Consider the impact autonomous vehicles will have. Once there is mass scale adoption, the rationale for owning a personal car goes away. You could just book a vehicle, wait for it to come and be on your way.
Once there is mass scale adoption, the rationale for owning a personal car goes away.
This makes for interesting possibilities. Studies have shown individually owned vehicles are usually stationary, parked in a garage, 90-95 per cent of the time, which is why owners pay a hefty premium every month as car parking charges.
With vehicle ownership going down and the autonomous vehicles always on the road, the need for garages within a city will go down drastically. This will free up valuable land, especially in the Downtown areas of cities.
Consider also the human cost. Driving taxis and commercial vehicles is an important employment avenue for a large number of people. With driverless vehicles taking over the road, alternative employment will have to be found for these people.
Fortunately, such a scenario is still a few years away. However, factory automation and the use of robots is happening today and 5G will accelerate the process. Robots will take over a number of low-skilled or semi-skilled jobs.
Retraining and redeployment of existing workers, already a major exercise, will become even more important. As individuals, we will need to acquire new skill sets to survive in a highly automated environment.
Amit Roy Choudhury, a media consultant and journalist, writes about technology for GovInsider.