New Zealand Law Society - 5G: Big deal or not really

5G: Big deal or not really

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So, 5G is almost upon us. Apparently, it is going to bring us driverless cars, world peace and self-folding washing. Or something like that.

But what is 5G and is it really such a big deal?

Put simply, 5G is an umbrella term for ‘5th generation’ cellular transmission technologies that use much shorter radio wavelengths, and that can generally deliver much greater throughput than the current 4G standards.

And it’s fast.

How fast? Who really cares?! I mean, seriously, do we ever think about how fast 4G is? Not really, because 4G is generally fast enough to do everything we want it to do. I can watch 4K movies over 4G at the beach. How much more bandwidth do I need? Yes, 5G will be umpteen times faster than 4G, but for personal use this is a bit irrelevant, as 4G is already fast enough for what we’re doing today, thanks very much.

Don’t get me wrong, more speed is always good, but it’s not raw bandwidth that makes 5G interesting. What’s really interesting is how Asia has, so far, taken the lead in developing 5G products and technologies and how 5G will enable a truly connected world. An Internet of Things.

Asia takes the lead

US companies innovate and Asia imitates, right? Asian countries, as we have been told many times, can never become true technological leaders, as they lack the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit of the United States and other English-speaking countries. They’re only really good at taking innovative products and commoditising them. They’re only good at tapping their vast supplies of cheap labour to churn out copycat products, usually copies of products they’re manufacturing for other, more innovative companies.

A mobile phone on a pink background

Working in tech I’ve heard derivatives of this narrative so many times that I too bought into it for a while, but of course it’s complete rubbish. Look at what the Japanese did to manufacturing, the motorcar and to consumer electronics. Look at what the Koreans have done in consumer electronics (Samsung, not Apple, developed the first commercially available tablet computer, flash storage, watch phone and even the Retina display), manufacturing and energy (nuclear and renewable).

Look at what China has done in construction, manufacturing, green tech, social media (WeChat has over one billion active monthly users) and electronic payments (between them, WeChat Pay and Alibaba process billions of electronic payments per month).

But despite all of the evidence to the contrary, we still hear about how Asian countries copy and steal, rather than innovate.

…and along came 5G

And then along comes 5G.

Asian behemoths such as Korea’s Samsung and, most notably, China’s Huawei are years ahead of the traditional industry ‘leaders’ (ie, the US and various European countries) in the development of 5G products and technologies. The implications of this cannot be overstated.

For China this represents the culmination of a long and determined strategy toward becoming one of the world’s true technology powerhouses.

It’s working and it’s freaking the hell out of Western companies and governments. It’s one of the factors that led to the Trump administration’s ham-fisted blacklisting of Huawei, blocking its access to the US market and to American suppliers.

Watch how this blows up in America’s face. China has suddenly been forced to divert untold billions into the development of hardware and software to replace products that Huawei (and possibly other Chinese companies in future) can no longer buy from US suppliers. This is driving Chinese companies to compete in areas where the US currently reigns supreme and will undoubtedly come back to haunt the US long after these so-called national security bans have been lifted.

A connected everything

In many ways 5G resembles wi-fi. Because it uses shorter wavelengths 5G signals don’t travel as far and they’re not as good at penetrating buildings as earlier technologies. This means a lot more cellular base stations (‘cell towers’), although these will be a lot smaller and less noticeable than with previous generations.

This all means that devices that connect to 5G can do so with less latency (the time it takes for data to traverse the network) and using less power.

We’ve all seen how wi-fi is now built into everything, from our smartphones to our TVs, Chromecasts, Kindles, etc. With 5G it will become just as inexpensive for manufacturers to integrate cellular connections into just about everything as well. In fact, many devices will contain a single chipset that allows them to connect to wi-fi and 5G. The distinction between wi-fi and mobile data will become less and less clear.

No, 5G won’t on its own bring us self-driving cars or a virtual reality world. What it will deliver is the high speed, low latency and low power network that billions of smart devices will need to maintain cheap and reliable connections to the internet.

5G connectivity will be so cheap and plentiful that many of us will ditch our wired broadband connections altogether (including that UFB connection you waited years for) and some of us will even get rid of wi-fi. Why bother with patchy wi-fi when your TV, fridge and washing machine can all connect to the internet over a cellular network?

We call this interconnection of everyday devices via the internet the ‘Internet of Things’. This process is already underway, but will be helped greatly by the emergence of 5G connectivity.

It’s a pretty big deal

Yes, 5G is a big deal and its impact will be profound, but no one really knows yet what applications of it will truly capture our imaginations. Self-driving cars are already here. They will use, but won’t actually rely upon, 5G, so that’s not it.

I’m not sure where it is yet, but I’m really excited to see where the technology takes us.

I’m even more interested to see how the world responds to China’s emergence as a true technology leader, rather than simply a manufacturer of other countries’ products. The geopolitical, societal and technological impacts will be felt by us all. Will we come to see them as good or bad?

Damian Funnell is a technologist and founder of Choice Technology, an IT services company, and Hoodoo, an app development studio.

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