A generation ago, mobile video calls were the stuff of spy movies and science fiction. Now, as mobile technology enters its fifth wave of evolution, we’re stepping into a future that not even James Bond or Star Trek could have imagined. And that’s not hype. Fifth-generation (or 5G) mobile technology will deliver 10 times the reliability, 100 times the speed, and 1,000 times the capacity of the 4G tech we’re currently using. And it’s not just about faster data speeds: it’s about enabling the fourth industrial revolution of artificial intelligence, virtual reality and the Internet of Things.
So how did we get from our old brick cell phones to AI, VR and IoT? Ryan van der Bergh, senior specialist: Radio Access Network at MTN, explains:
Mobile technology has been developed since the 1970s and 1980s.[…] Roughly once every 10 years we get a new generation of mobile communication technology, and we’re now entering the fifth. The first generation was mobile voice calls. When all the South African operators launched in the 1990s we used 2G, which could do phone calls and SMSs. Then along came the mobile internet, which brought the third generation (3G). Then 4G brought LTE, or high-speed data.
Each generation had its ‘killer’ application. 5G will deliver three of those. The first, Van der Bergh says, is data speed. enable 4K video streaming, and virtual reality mobile streaming, moving into augmented or mixed reality. This involves massive amounts of streaming data, which you can think of as huge ‘pipes’ in the sky.
The second is massive IoT technology. Van der Berg says: ‘Here you’ll get orders of magnitude of more devices, but each will use small amounts of data. This technology will power smart cities and smart homes. Think of it as tiny pipes in the sky, but lots and lots of them – they estimate one million devices per square kilometre.’
Finally, there’s what Van der Bergh calls ‘mission-critical services’. These refer to any situation that involves life or death, and could include remotely driven vehicles, remote medical facilities, industrial automation, and suchlike. It’s the type of high-speed, low-latency connection that would enable a medical surgeon to operate, in real time and via a surgical robot, on a patient who’s on the other side of the planet.
It all sounds very futuristic, but that future is already here. MTN recently partnered with equipment vendor Ericsson to conduct 5G trials in Africa, while rival operator Vodacom has run similar trials with Nokia – both with a view to commercial deployment in the near future.
‘We’ve done three trials to date,’ says Geoffrey Blake, senior manager: technical regulation at MTN.
‘The first was a proof-of-concept, while the second was an end-toend process, where we tested the entire network to see what the user experience would be like in the real world. The third trial was a use case, where we did a simulation with an autonomous car.’
Those trials achieved download speeds of more than 20Gbit/ second, with blink-of-an-eye latency (network round-trip time) of just 5 milliseconds – the highest speeds ever achieved on a mobile network in Africa, and significantly faster than the fastest connections available to South African consumers over fixed fibre-optic lines.
That’s not to say that 5G will replace fixed-line fibre connections. ‘You’re always going to need both fixed-line fibre and mobile,’ Blake says, explaining that each one comes with its own set of trade-offs. ‘You will never beat the reliability of a fixed cable, but it’s at a fixed point. Mobile gives you connectivity while you’re mobile, but there are physical barriers like trees and buildings which mean you sacrifice some of your through puts. So you want both: fixed line to your home, and mobile for when you’re on the move.’
Blake expects that, just as we currently have 3G routers for our laptops, we’ll use 5G routers in the future. ‘It’s a lot easier for the guys who make the systems to build you a router, which is bigger and static, than to build you a handset,’ he says. ‘The first 5G systems that come up will be routers for homes and businesses and things like that. After that you’ll get into the handsets, and the real missioncritical stuff will come last.’ He expects 5G routers to hit the market in 2019, with the first 5G-enabled handsets/smartphones following in the second half of that year.
Van der Bergh suggests that homes or estates that cannot accommodate fibre might consider installing 5G home routers instead. ‘You will want the freedom to be able to go beyond your house, and beyond where the fibre is connected,’ he says. A self-driving car that runs on a cell phone data connection? Now that’s a future worth looking forward to.
Mark van Dijk