The brave new era of 5G is upon us – sort of. This next phase in wireless technology is slowly being rolled out across the world, though “rolled out” is probably not quite the right phrase, as that would imply one massive wave of change. Things are actually coming along in a staggered, inconsistent way, depending on the country you’re in and the mobile network you’re with. In India, things are looking particularly choppy, with wranglings between the government and the tech companies threatening to delay progress.
But before getting into the thorny situation in India, a quick look at why this is all going to be such a big deal when 5G becomes the norm.
Turning the Internet up to 11
Picture yourself lying on a beach and feeling like binge-watch some episodes of your favourite Netflix series on your phone or tablet. Now imagine having them all downloaded and ready in less than a minute. Or, perhaps you’re on a train and feel like placing a bet on the cricket at one of the new bookmakers. Now imagine being able to do exactly that with zero lag or fear of the network cutting out at the crucial moment.
This is the world which 5G promises. The word “revolution” isn’t overblowing the issue: it really will herald a radical shift in the possibilities of the Internet. Putting things in terms of numbers can be a bit tricky, as there are no hard and fast figures for 4G and 5G speeds; it all depends on exact networks and exact locations. But the fact is, 4G is usually measured in tens of megabits a second, whereas 5G will ideally be measured in gigabits per second – a massive, epic leap forwards in mobile network capability.
As Harish Krishnaswamy, who teaches electrical engineering at New York’s Columbia University, puts it, “It will enable new applications that are just not possible today. Just for an example, at gigabits per second data rates, you could potentially download a movie to your phone or tablet in a matter of seconds. Those types of data rates could enable virtual reality applications or autonomous driving cars.”
The big India roll out
India first started dabbling in the world of 5G back in 2018, with its first network trial in collaboration with Chinese tech giant Huawei. But things have been rocky since then. The on-going international controversy over Huawei potentially posing a security risk led to some friction as India looked set to block Huawei from being involved in the 5G project. China then retaliated by threatening to place sanctions on Indian companies operating in China. Since then, India has reversed its apparent decision, announcing that all major players – including Huawei – would be allowed to take part in 5G trials.
But that doesn’t mean it’s plain sailing from here on. In fact, it seems that the big 5G roll out in India may take a lot longer than initially hoped. Although the Indian government is keen to crack on with a spectrum auction – by which it would sell tech giants the rights to transmit signals on the electromagnetic spectrum – the mobile companies themselves are reportedly less keen to get stuck in right now.
The main issue is pricing, with mobile companies complaining the government is putting an inflated price tag on the spectrum. Experts say they’re actually pushing to put the auction on hold for a few more years, largely because there’s been a dip in profits for the big firms lately, with the companies coming under financial stress.
“From the point of the seller, i.e., the government, it is not a wise time for auctions,” says tech consultant Mahesh Uppal. “For them, it is like selling a house during a [financial crisis]”.
The other issue is the spectrum itself, with concerns there simply isn’t enough of it for the telecom operators to make use of. It now looks like the government and the private sector has to thrash things out and come to an agreement about pricing and bandwidth before the 5G revolution can progress.
A new technological age
When 5G does become the norm in India, it will herald a technological and cultural shift throughout the country, just as it will do across the world. Although much of the media focus has been on speeding up how soon you can download TV shows and films, the advent of 5G is about far more than being able to kick back with your favourite Netflix fodder in double-quick time.
As Conor Pierce, corporate VP for Samsung UK and Ireland, told London’s Evening Standard, “I think when you have common ground and reliable connection to 5G, I think that will allow us to engage in different ways – it’s the beginning of a new era for the way we live our lives.”
Cloud gaming is going to be more accessible than ever before, thanks to the impact which 5G will have on latency. That’s the time it takes for your actions online to register and initiate a response from the server you’re communicating with. As games journalist Alan Bradley has explained, the low latency allows “developers to offload some of the computational workload from a device… a larger share of the processing can be done remotely.”
It’s easy to see why tech commentators are so enthralled by what may happen. Ian Fogg of mobile data analytics company OpenSignal has put the possibilities of 5G in striking, science fiction-like terms: “Think of smart glasses featuring augmented reality, mobile virtual reality… the Internet of Things making cities smarter.”
With practical holographic technology eventually being made possible by 5G, we’ll be able to hang out with friends and colleagues without being in the same room (or country), while driverless cars may also go mainstream as their efficiency increases.
The list of new ways of living goes on. Ultimately, it’s no wonder the Indian government is keen to get started, but will they be able to persuade the private companies the time is now right?