The PyeongChang Winter Olympics in February this year saw the first broad-scale real-life deployment of 5G technology. South Korea showcased the new network first with its impressive 5G-enabled opening ceremony techno-dove, and then in an array of 5G-enabled live viewing and immersive technology options.
This next generation of mobile networks promises a true experience of always on, always available, with blistering speeds of at least 100 Mbps, and sub-millisecond latency, according to Juanita Clark, CEO of FTTX Council.
The new network is about a hundred times faster than 4G LTE, and is expected to spark an explosion of new apps. Developers say it will underscore other communications technologies that rely on transmission of large amounts of high-resolution data real-time, such as AI and self-driving vehicles. It is also touted as paving the way for the long-awaited ‘internet of things’ where any number and type of device can be connected intelligently.
At PyeongChang, numerous 5G-connected cameras were placed in the ice arena and along the cross-country course, providing spectators with real-time multi-angle views of athletes. Spectators could also follow individual athletes who were fitted with 5G-enabled cameras, GPS trackers and sensors. Virtual reality broadcasting was demonstrated on the replay screens in the stadium and for use by the judges, thanks to near-real-time video-rendering software. And shuttle buses relied on 5G to selfdrive, with their windows replaced by video screens showing events live.
All this relies on a range of complex software and technology, that is enabled by the speed and responsiveness of 5G networks. For example, self-drive vehicles are now possible in real life because the network enables high precision GPS location and better anticipation of traffic and accidents.
Telecom Review Asia Pacific reports that the Winter Olympics deployment of 5G allowed KT Corporation, South Korea’s main telecommunications company, to identify some of the issues with the technology, and then invest in solutions. A key finding was that four times as many antennae than for 4G LTE will be needed to provide the same outdoor coverage.
Existing cellular network architecture in South Africa will not be able to cope with the high levels of new traffic that will be generated by 5G-enabled devices, so it needs to be improved and upgraded. Antennae will need to be much closer together – about 150 metres apart – but they will also be much smaller, and may even be underground, so the visual impact will be minimal. And what will make them work is that they will be connected by fibre-optic cable.
‘In fact,’ says Clark, ‘5G can’t happen without fibre.’ South Africa is already laying cable for fibre to the home (FTTH), but the network will need to be considerably densified. ‘The jury is still out,’ she says, ‘but our estimate is that we will need eight times the amount of fibre that we have now.’ When 5G is launched, operators will likely capitalise on existing fibre-optic networks, which means they will focus first on deployment in areas that already have the infrastructure in place.
There is as yet no comprehensive picture of what 5G technologies will be made available to the market, but they are likely to start with virtual reality experiences and vehicle networks. In everyday terms, 5G will be fast enough to download a high definition movie in a few seconds, watch ultra-high definition live television, and significantly ramp up cloud services. In near-future terms, 5G gives us the potential for safer roads, and may even enable our dogs to open the fridge electronically.
With a drone bearing the Olympic torch, South Korea already demonstrated the potential for drone courier services, or even drone delivery of emergency medical assistance to disaster areas. Right now, the new network is not going to give us a Bladerunner world, but it might take us to the distant edges of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot artificial intelligence. In more futuristic terms, who knows what software developers will imagine for us?
KT Corporation intends to launch 5G in South Korea within a year, and most major international mobile operators are aiming for 2020. Demand from consumers will be the driving force. It is expected that about a billion people will be 5G connected within five years, although it will still take time for the network’s full potential to be developed.
For South Africa, delivery by 2020 will require a concerted and coordinated effort between telecom operators, equipment and components manufacturers, government, and regulators. And fibre. As Clark says, ‘The road to 5G is paved with fibre, and the time is now to ramp up deployment.’